A female traveler submits to a full body scan Nov. 24, 2010, before heading to her flight at Pittsburgh International Airport. TSA no longer will use the full-body scanners, agency officials said. (Getty Images)
Modesty is returning to the airport.
The Transportation Security Administration said Friday it’s dropping the full-body scanning machines that produced almost nude images of people at checkpoints and outraged many travelers.
The reason: The maker of the machines, Rapiscan Systems, cannot produce software to eliminate the almost nude images that TSA personnel view and turn them into stick-like figures.
The machines also were controversial because they use X-rays to scan passengers, prompting concerns about radiation.
The move doesn’t mean that passengers won’t have to go through full-body scans at airports. TSA is keeping other machines that use a different technology and software, and which provide stick-like body images that personnel examine for potential weapons.
TSA has 174 Rapiscan machines, which will be removed from airports by June. The agency earlier had removed 76 of the machines from airports — including New York’s LaGuardia and JFK, Chicago O’Hare, Los Angeles, Boston, Charlotte, N.C., and Orlando, Fla.
But it was privacy concerns — not radiation — that prompted TSA to make the move. Because of the concerns, TSA officers had to monitor the near-nude images of passengers on Rapiscan monitors in private rooms away from checkpoints. They then relayed messages to checkpoints if any suspicious objects were detected. And that also takes longer.
“By June 2013 travelers will only see machines which have (cartoon images) that allow for faster throughput,” TSA said in its statement. “This means faster lanes for the traveler and enhanced security.”
Travelers are allowed to refuse a full-body scan, regardless of the machine, in favor of a pat-down by TSA officers.
TSA had given manufacturer Rapiscan Systems until June to update its software to change the near-nude images. But after sending a threatening letter Nov. 9, the agency canceled its contract when it became obvious the company wouldn’t meet that deadline.
“TSA has strict requirements that all vendors must meet for security effectiveness and efficiency,” the agency said. “Due to its inability to deploy non-imaging automated target recognition software ... TSA has terminated its contract with Rapiscan.”
Rapiscan, a unit of OSI Systems, said the equipment “has been operated by TSA as an effective imaging system,” so the machines will be moved to other agencies that also use them. “We are pleased to reach a mutually satisfactory agreement with the TSA,” said Deepak Chopra, president of OSI Systems.
The company didn’t sell any machines to TSA for more than a year and will report a $2.7 million charge for 2012 from the agreement.
Full-body scanners are used to find non-metallic items, such as the underwear bomb discovered on Christmas 2009.
“That individual could walk through our typical airport walk-through metal detectors 10 times, 100 times, 1,000 times and never set off that alarm,” TSA Administrator John Pistole told a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors on Friday. “That’s the reason we have the advanced imaging technology in the U.S. — the body scanners as they are referred to sometimes — because those enable us to pick up non-metallic as well as metallic items.”
The software on the TSA’s other full-body scanning machines, made by L-3 Communications, has been adjusted to produce cartoon-like, stick outlines of people with suspicious objects highlighted. The agency said those machines will remain in operation, and actually speed up screening at airports because officers monitor the images at the checkpoint — not in a separate room.
Moving through a scanner with cartoon-figure images takes 12 seconds, compared with 80 seconds for a pat-down, TSA says.
At a November congressional hearing, TSA said it had spent $140 million on full-body scanners, with $40 million for Rapiscan machines and $100 million for the L-3. The agency has about 800 machines total at 200 airports.
Bart Jansen reports for USA Today.