The Transportation Security Administration has been a bane to privacy advocates since its post-9/11 implementation. But increased calls for government to limit the intrusiveness of TSA searches have yielded some small victories for privacy advocates, though there is still much work to be done.
The TSA recently announced that it will discontinue use of so-called “backscatter” machines, which were manufactured by OSI Systems under the name Rapiscan to provide transportation security agents with a detailed naked-body image of travelers to scan for possible weapon threats. The agency says the machines will be replaced by June with new ones that provide only a generic outline of the human body.
The move comes after Rapiscan failed to comply with a Congressional mandate to create security software for the existing machines to obscure images of human genitals during pre-flight screenings.
The TSA first dismissed privacy concerns over the scanners, but after years of complaints about the TSA having a creepy, voyeuristic power to take nude photographs of travelers (which can be turned to detailed photographs with common computer software that inverts negatives) , the agency made some policy chances around 2005. First, TSA officials simply opted to move the screeners viewing the naked body images to a remote location away from the actual screening area. With that came stories of TSA agents working together to single out passengers who they deemed attractive for “random” naked scans.
According to reports, more than 500 complaints were logged against TSA agents by women who felt they were singled out for “additional screening” by the naked-body machines.
The TSA later moved to give passengers the option to opt out of the naked-body scan, whether for reasons of modesty or because of worries over the high amounts of radiation emitted from the machines. But the alternative, an aggressive pat-down which has been reported to have an unusually thorough focus on genitals in some cases, has not been a favorite of Americans concerned with privacy and personal dignity.
The TSA currently operates 174 backscatter machines in 30 airports, and it has another 76 units in storage. The agency says that while it will discontinue use of the machines by summer, they could be put back to use pending software upgrades. For the time being, however, TSA says it is working on outfitting American airports with millimeter wave machines that use radio waves — reducing radiation concerns — and provide only a generic sick figure image of the human outline (hopefully making it much harder for any potential TSA perverts to get their rocks off).
“By June 2013 travelers will only see machines which have ATR that allow for faster throughput. This means faster lanes for the traveler and enhanced security,” the TSA said in a statement.
The action is a result of a suit filed by the Electronic Privacy Information Center and a coalition of privacy advocates against the Department of Homeland Security.
“It is big news,” Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told CNN. “It removes the concern that people are being viewed naked by the TSA screener.”