Partial progress against full-body scanners
The Federal Aviation Administration, carrying out a mandate from Congress, has ordered the removal from airports of full-body scanners that allow security officers to electronically undress airline customers. They will be replaced with machines that show only a dummy human outline and any hidden weapons.
This is a big gain for air travel privacy.
But the same privacy concerns that made the removed scanners controversial will follow them if they are used, as planned, in other government security operations.
The 250 machines in question are among those that use “backscatter” X-rays to see through clothing. Most of the other 550 FAA body scanners use a radio frequency technology called millimeter-wave and are equipped with privacy software that uses a generic body image. These newer machines require fewer operators, take up less floor space and complete scans in less time.
But there is always some drawback, it seems. The millimeter-wave machines have been found, in tests conducted in Europe and Australia, to have very high “false-positive” rates. At least one in four travelers were stopped for body searches.
So don’t expect the change in scanner technology to speed the flow through airport security.
Backscatter machines are controversial not only because they can produce a near perfect nude body image that is invasive of travelers’ privacy but because, in the view of some critics, they expose travelers to dangerous levels of ionized X-rays.
The FAA and many radiation authorities dismiss these safety concerns. The FAA says travelers get more exposure to radiation while in flight than they do from the backscatter scanners. Indeed, the FAA has issued contracts to install more backscatter machines provided they come equipped with privacy software.
But the 250 backscatter machines made by Rapiscan at a cost to the government of $40 million are being removed at the company’s expense from airport service because the company says it cannot meet a June deadline imposed last year by Congress.
The deadline required Rapiscan to install privacy software on the already deployed machines.
Meanwhile, according to Rapiscan, the machines being removed from airports will remain government property and will be turned over to the military and federal law enforcement agencies for security use.
Members of the public who must pass through these machines at their new locations will inevitably face the same privacy concerns as airline travelers.