Thinking Tech

Nude no more: TSA tests 'generic outline' scanner tech

Nude no more: TSA tests 'generic outline' scanner tech

Posting in Technology

New body scanner software in testing by the TSA would eliminate the need for employees to see "nude" images of passengers.

Public outrage over the TSA's use of "advanced imaging technology" seems to have subsided, if only by the palliative effects of time. It's still there, just not boiling over.

This anger couldn't be attributed solely to a one reason, but in retrospect, it's clear that a single issue was far more visceral than any other: the nudity. Opting to pass through a millimeter wave or backscatter body scanner was essentially opting to be disrobed, silently and by the hand of of mysterious machine, then photographed, then shown to a TSA employee.

Yes, the scans display no identifying features, and the viewing agent is stationed far away, approving each passenger by radio. But the process doesn't sit well with many people for obvious reasons, helped in no part by sample photos provided on the TSA's website that show clearly discernible genitals.

In response, the TSA has made its first concession regarding scanner policy since controversy erupted a few months ago, announcing that it will soon trial new software for scanners to "further enhance passenger privacy." ("Further" seems an odd word choice here, but that's par for the course.)

The U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) will begin testing new software on its advanced imaging technology (AIT) machines that enhances privacy by eliminating passenger-specific images and instead auto-detects potential threat items and indicates their location on a generic outline of a person...

The new software will automatically detect potential threat items and indicate their location on a generic outline of a person that will appear on a monitor attached to the AIT unit. As with the current version of AIT, the areas identified as containing potential threats will require additional screening. The generic outline will be identical for all passengers. If no potential threat items are detected, an "OK" will appear on the monitor with no outline.

The trial will begin at Las Vegas McCarran International Airport, Hartsfield Jackson Atlanta International, and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, and presumably give the TSA the information it needs to decide whether or not to deploy the new software in the rest of the nation's 500 AIT machines.

On the surface, the changes are appealing. Theoretically, these "nude" photos are never seen by human eyes, instead getting parsed for necessary information by a computer algorithm and displayed as something akin to a bathroom sign symbol with targets drawn on it. The entire remote approval step is also removed, which should make the trip through an average checkpoint a bit faster. And if the software is installed across the nation's airports, the TSA employees tasked with reviewing anonymized scanner images--surely one of the most grimly unpleasant jobs at the agency--would be sent elsewhere.

What the changes wouldn't help are the some of the more reasoned objections to the scanners, namely worries about security of data. (Health concerns, another source of resistance to the new scanners, have so far proven unfounded.)

In November of last year, Gizmodo published a trove of images taken from a millimeter wave scanner used in a courthouse in Florida. The images were acquired with a simple FOIA request, and due to an improperly calibrated machine showed images that it would be a stretch to call "nude."

However, the publication of these images highlighted a fundamental problem. In response to privacy concerns, the TSA had claimed that "advanced imaging technology cannot store, print, transmit or save the image." (The claim is still on the agency's website.)

The existence of these images, however anomalous the circumstances leading up to their publication, suggested otherwise.

The TSA had made no mention of whether or not the new scanner software provides any further safeguards against the storage and transfer of images, or if the matter is still enforced solely by policy. Either way, this new software is at most a step in the right direction, not a fully corrective change.

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John Herrman

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor John Herrman is a freelance writer based in New York City. He is also contributing editor at Gizmodo. He holds a degree from the University of Edinburgh. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure