TSA is trying to find a new home for backscatter scanning machines it is removing from the nation's airports. Above, TSA officers give a demonstration of the machines in a file photo taken at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City. (Michael Nagle / Getty Images)
The controversial “backscatter” passenger screening machines being removed from airports may next be used to screen employees and visitors to federal buildings.
“We are working with other government agencies to find homes for them,” Transportation Security Administration spokesman David Castelveter said. “There is an interest clearly by DoD and the State Department to use them — and other agencies as well.”
Members of Congress and privacy advocates raised objections to the almost-nude images of travelers produced by the backscatter machines. Congress passed legislation in February 2012 that required TSA to upgrade the machines’ software to display less-detailed images of passengers or to stop using the machines.
The backscatter machines also have sparked fears about radiation exposure since they were first installed.
TSA decided last month to stop using the machines because the manufacturer, Rapiscan Systems, could not make the changes Congress required.
TSA has already removed 76 of the machines and will remove the remaining 174 by June 1, according to Castelveter. At a cost of about $160,000 per unit, they value about $40 million.
The nearly 3- and 4-year-old machines are still useful screening systems, Castelveter said. Just as at airports, they can be used at federal facilities to scan people for prohibited items and weapons.
“Hopefully we will be able to deploy them within other government agencies,” he said.
At least one lawmaker objects to that plan. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said in a statement Jan. 18 that if the machines cannot be upgraded to prevent what he said is the “photographing of nude images,” then they should not be used in federal facilities at all.
“The American public must be assured that these machines will not be used in any other public federal facility,” Thompson said.
Deepak Chopra, CEO of OSI Systems Inc., which owns Rapiscan Systems, said in a statement Jan. 17 the company will assist TSA in moving these systems to other agencies. Rapiscan Systems will bear the cost of removing the machines — about $2.7 million.
TSA will replace most of the backscatter machines with its “millimeter-wave” scanners — which use a different kind of scanning technology and produce a less-detailed image — and are deployed at about 200 airports.
TSA is also researching new screening technology from three companies in a pilot program. Rapiscan machines are not among the participants.
And in response to pressure from lawmakers and others concerned with what they see as potentially unsafe levels of radiation, TSA has asked the National Academy of Sciences to convene a committee to review previous TSA studies and current techniques to measure radiation exposure from the backscatter screening machines.
The National Academy of Sciences study will look at whether exposure to radiation complies with existing health and safety standards and whether TSA procedures are appropriate to prevent overexposure of travelers and equipment operators.
The backscatter technology was evaluated for safety and found to be safe by the Food and Drug Administration, National Institute of Standards and Technology, and Johns Hopkins University, according to TSA.