Airport body scans to get less personal by early 2012

TSA plans to modify half its machines to show screening personnel more generic pictures by year-end.

The Transportation Security Administration expects to mask full-body images on about half its 500 passenger screening machines nationwide by the end of the year and upgrade the rest shortly thereafter, the agency's top official said Thursday evening.

TSA began ramping up the rollout of 1,000 whole-body advanced imaging technology scanners after traditional metal detectors failed to catch chemical explosives concealed inside the underwear of a passenger on Christmas Day 2009. When the scanners met the ire of passengers, privacy advocates and lawmakers, the agency started testing different technology, called automatic target recognition, that flags suspicious items on a generic outline of a body.

TSA Administrator John Pistole said three trials conducted at airports serving Atlanta, Las Vegas and Washington achieved "good success," meaning, "expected rates in terms of detection and false positives and throughput have all been positive." The agency plans to modify about 240 of the existing whole body imagers by the end of 2011, he told House lawmakers during the Thursday hearing.

Software has not been developed to change the remaining systems, which were built by a different manufacturer, Pistole explained. "We are doing lab testing over the next couple of months and hope to field test their software in the fall, and assuming everything goes well, follow very shortly with the rest of the machines," he said.

TSA has yet to buy the 500 additional advanced imaging devices that Congress set aside fiscal 2011 funding for, but intends to, Pistole said.

The House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation Security invited Pistole to testify to learn about the Obama administration's future priorities -- particularly for airplane passenger screening -- before lawmakers draft legislation to reauthorize TSA for 2012 and 2013. Subcommittee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Ala., said the panel will try to release a reauthorization bill in early July.

Pistole said he feels confident that the new scanning technology will resolve concerns about security officers peering at body parts.

The machines "completely address, I believe, the privacy issues because there is not an image of a person -- it's just a generic outline of a person with an area of any anomalies highlighted," he said.

Meanwhile, the full House on Thursday passed a fiscal 2012 Homeland Security Department spending bill (H.R. 2017) that rejects President Obama's request for an additional 275 imaging systems. In a statement of administration policy issued this week, White House officials said the move would adversely affect TSA because the machines are "an important tool for detecting both metallic and nonmetallic threats as part of the aviation passenger screening process."

Under the House proposal, $4.2 billion would be allocated for passenger and baggage screening -- about 4 percent less than the fiscal 2011 level -- to finish the planned installations. The spending bill has yet to be introduced in the Senate.