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Originally published January 26, 2013 at 3:01 PM | Page modified January 26, 2013 at 3:01 PM

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Backscatter machines going away, but airport security won’t change much

Other airport body-imaging machines remaining, but with more privacy protection for passengers.

The New York Times

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Ah, yes, the TSA. That's the agency that demonstrated that many "small... MORE
Keep politely opting out. It sends a message. MORE
Absolutely, Jay. I opt out every time I'm asked to enter one of the scanners. I don't... MORE


Truly bad ideas never die, in my opinion. So I wasn’t surprised to hear that, while the Transportation Security Administration says it is removing those much-reviled backscatter body-imaging scanners from airport checkpoints, the machines will be stored “until they can be redeployed to other mission priorities.”

I say, goodbye and good riddance to the scanners, which critics have called virtual strip-search machines. The TSA wasn’t being specific about where the machines might be reused, but the federal government oversees transportation security in a variety of places, including train stations.

For years, critics have insisted that the images displayed by the backscatter machines (so named because of the way their X-ray waves are reflected off a body) are unacceptably detailed and graphic. But the TSA has said it was working on privacy protections for those images.

Now, under pressure from Congress, the TSA says that all 174 of the machines now in use at airport security checkpoints will be removed by June 1. And the reason is that the manufacturer, Rapiscan Systems, a division of OSI Systems Inc., would fail to meet a congressional deadline of June 1 requiring that all airport body-imaging machines be fitted with software that “produces a generic image of the individual being screened.”

The TSA sounded pretty blunt in pointing a finger at the manufacturer. “Rapiscan was unable to fulfill their end of the contract” and develop the required privacy software, the agency said.

In its announcement, Deepak Chopra, the chief executive of OSI Systems, noted the company’s longstanding “close relationship with the security agency,” and added, “We look forward to continuing to provide leading-edge technologies and services to the TSA.”

Of course, removing all Rapiscan machines (the TSA had already taken 76 out of service last year) does not mean the end of the airport body-imaging machines. Nor does it mean the end of the widely disliked checkpoint drill of divesting yourself of all possessions, even handkerchiefs, and standing at attention, arms raised like an arrested bandit, while an electronic scanner buzzes over your body and a screener surveys the image.

Including the soon-to-be-gone Rapiscan machines, there are 843 body scanners now in use at checkpoints in about 200 airports in the United States. But the majority of those machines, made by a unit of L-3 Communications Inc., employ millimeter-wave technology, which uses radio frequency waves to inspect a body. The Rapiscan machines use low-intensity X-ray beams.

In 2010, the Electronic Privacy Information Center sued the TSA’s overseer, the Department of Homeland Security, calling for suspension of the use of body scanners that create “a physically invasive strip search.” Meanwhile, criticism in Congress continued to mount.

L-3 had adopted software for its millimeter-wave machines that addressed the naked body image concerns. Rather than displaying the image of an individual’s naked body, the L-3 machines depict any foreign object on a person and display only a generic body outline, similar to the police chalk outline of a body at a homicide scene.

The imminent end of the Rapiscan backscatter machines — which cost about $180,000 each — would also seem to resolve the issue of safe levels of radiation doses that some critics raised about those machines’ X-ray technology. The TSA repeated recently that safety studies have shown those radiation concerns to be unwarranted.

The TSA also stressed that the Rapiscan machines are being removed only because of the congressional deadline on the image software and not for safety reasons. “All equipment met its security mission,” David Castelveter, an agency spokesman, said earlier this week..

The agency said most of the backscatter units will be replaced with millimeter-wave units. The agency has about 60 millimeter-wave machines on order, which are about the same price as the Rapiscan machines, and is expected to buy more. Under the agreement, Rapiscan will bear the expense of removing its backscatter units from checkpoints and storing them until they can put to use elsewhere.

OSI said last week that it has not sold any Rapiscan machines to the TSA in fiscal 2012 and 2013 and that it has about $5 million in orders that will now be “debooked.” But taxpayers have spent more than $45 million on the Rapiscan machines now in the TSA’s hands.

As to the future of those machines, Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss., the ranking member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said in a statement, “I want to make clear that if these machines cannot be altered to prevent the photographing of nude images, the American public must be assured that these machines will not be used in any other public federal facility.”

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