TSA removes body scanners criticized as too revealing

The TSA had developed protocols to assure that screeners who saw imagery of passengers never saw the passengers themselves.

Story highlights

  • Backscatter full-body scanners generated controversy
  • Critics said images were too revealing, others cited potential health concerns
  • TSA says it has met June 1 deadline to remove machines from airports
  • Airport full-body screening will use different technology

The harshest critics labeled them "virtual strip searches." Airport passenger screening that produced particularly realistic full-body images using backscatter technology.

Others also expressed health concerns about low doses of radiation from the X-rays underpinning those scans.

Well, it's all over now as the Transportation Security Administration says it has met a June 1 deadline to remove all 250 backscatter machines from U.S. airports.

Travelers will still go through other full-body scans that rely on a system that uses radio waves and produces less detailed body imaging. The millimeter wave machines raise fewer privacy and virtually no health concerns.

"I think from the privacy perspective, that (the elimination of backscatter machines) has to be considered a victory," said Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

The TSA maintained that the backscatter machines, manufactured by Rapiscan Systems, were safe and effective.

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The agency had developed protocols to assure that screeners who saw imagery of passengers never saw the passengers themselves.

    But Congress voted to require all body scanners to have privacy-protecting software, and the TSA announced in February it was phasing out backscatter systems because they could not meet the new standard.

    The last backscatter machines were removed about two weeks ago, a TSA spokesman said. All 250 units were removed at Rapiscan's expense, the agency said.

    Currently, there are more than 700 body scanners at about 165 airports, all with Automatic Target Recognition (ATR) software, which display items on a generic body outline.

    Rotenberg said he still has privacy concerns about millimeter wave machines, including what information is captured by the machine -- even if unseen by screeners -- and how long that information is retained.

    "We'd like to see clearer rules about the collection of the images," Rotenberg said. "Are they deleted? Are they saved? Is some analysis being done and can they be linked to passengers?"

    Most countries do not use body scanners, he said, preferring to use a combination of metal detection and technology that can identify explosives.

    Backscatter machines could return one day if the company develops required software, the TSA has said.