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Posted at 4:46 PM ET, 02/ 1/2011

TSA debuts new scanner software

By Ashley Halsey III

tsa02012011.jpgThe TSA demonstrates new software in a full-body scanner at Reagan National Airport. (By Ashley Halsey III / The Post)

[This post will be updated: 4:05 p.m. Update]

New software designed to make airport security scanners less intrusive will debut at the Las Vegas airport Tuesday.

Instead of sending a revealing image to be examined in a private security booth, new software will project a non-gender-specific silhouette on a small screen attached to the scanning booth.

If the passenger is carrying any contraband items a red box will appear on the screen. Otherwise it will flash a green okay.

The new technology was put on display by Transportation Security Administration head John S. Pistole at Reagan National Airport Tuesday.

The new software will be coming to Reagan National and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport next. That will happen "in the coming weeks," TSA spokesman Greg Soule said.

The images produced by the current software led to an uproar over privacy concerns. Pistole had said in the fall that he wanted to see modifications, but the technology that was being tested yielded too many false positives. Many passengers found the alternative, "enhanced" pat-downs by TSA agents even more disturbing.

In the demonstration at Reagan National Airport Tuesday, "passengers" filed through the scanners, some of them producing gray silhouettes with green "okay" screens, others producing the same silhouettes with red boxes where the machine detected something hidden.

Two types of scanning machines -- backscatter and millimeter wave -- have been installed at airports since 2007, when they were launched as part of a pilot program at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. Both machines produce the same full-body images that attracted controversy; they work by bouncing X-rays or radio waves off skin or concealed objects.

According to the TSA, the new software is being tested on millimeter wave machines, but the agency plans to test similar software on backscatter units.

"It's sort of like developing software for an Apple computer and a P.C.," said TSA spokesman Nick Kimball. "The software has to be different."

Related stories:

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Protests don't delays Thanksgiving travel

Most Americans support scanners

Who is exempt from airport security?

TSA responds to child pat-down video

TSA discourages body-scan boycotts

Government scientists offer alternative to scanner images

Instead of a TSA airport search he'll take the train

TSA officials get 'pat-downs'

Will you undergo a pat-down?

Full-body scanners installed at Dulles

By Ashley Halsey III  | February 1, 2011; 4:46 PM ET
Categories:  Airports, Aviation  
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That's helpful since it's mandatory that I fly to Las Vegas in August for a trade show. So far I've managed to not fly for work since my little trip with it's "workaround" that got me skipping all those patdowns/scans. This will be an improvement but I'm still pushing my legislators to do away with TSA completely. Not happy until it's defunded and dissolved.

Posted by: Desertdiva1 | February 1, 2011 11:57 AM | Report abuse


DC to Las Vegas is actually a very nice road trip. . .

Posted by: WashingtonDame | February 1, 2011 12:58 PM | Report abuse

And the high-tech police state grows a little.... and freedom dies a little.

Posted by: gth1 | February 1, 2011 1:03 PM | Report abuse

Okay, that's a little better. But I still object to scanning people without reason.

Posted by: merzydoats | February 1, 2011 1:15 PM | Report abuse

Okay, that's a little better. But I still object to scanning people without reason.

Posted by: merzydoats | February 1, 2011 1:16 PM | Report abuse

Ever wonder why these machines are always demonstrated detecting guns and knives? It's because they stink at detecting bombs.

That's right, these machines don't work any better than the standard metal detector you already walk through. Something to think about when you're getting radiated by the strip-search machine.

Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | February 1, 2011 1:21 PM | Report abuse

Are these millimeter or backscatter, or neither? The radiation dosage and safety of those two is very different, according to the UCSF scientists. Please provide more information.

Posted by: chickenofeathers | February 1, 2011 1:30 PM | Report abuse

Second the question from chickenofeathers: are these new machines millimeter wave or backscatter x-ray scanners? The concern I have with these machines has less to do with privacy than with radiation exposure safety.

Posted by: greggwiggins | February 1, 2011 1:47 PM | Report abuse

Some relevant questions for TSA...

1. This questions persists for both the old and new scanners...where are the independent studies on the long-term health risks for these devices? Government issued reports are useless to most Americans. Simply stated, most Americans don't trust government to do a good job with anything, much less health matters.

2. What was the rush to deploy the "naked" body scanners? Was it to boost some companies quaterly revenue without giving any regard to American citizen's rights and concerns? Has the TSA accomplished anything by deploying the existing "naked scanners" except alienating many American taxpayers?

Posted by: FrequentTravler | February 1, 2011 1:52 PM | Report abuse

The article does not say whether the new machines use X-ray backscatter or millimeter wave technology. This is very important to some people. Please clarify.

I actually agree with Desertdiva1, gth1, and merzydoats -- there is no plausible excuse for TSA to be doing this at all, but I suppose this is an improvement of sorts.

Posted by: GordonCash | February 1, 2011 1:56 PM | Report abuse

The TSA X-Rayed my wallet after going through one of the rape scanners at IAD.

What did that accomplish?

Say it contained a giant knife, or a gun. That would have shown up on the rape scanner.

Okay, say it was packed with explosives. That would not have shown up on the X-ray.

Just proving, the TSA is still full of !@#$

Posted by: josebrwn | February 1, 2011 1:56 PM | Report abuse

This still does not answer the question of how the machines work and whether they emit radiation. Also, there can be no guarantee in terms of radiation that the machine is set up and operating properly on the day you are told to go through it. The TSA wants to use these machines for C.Y.A. (you know what that stands for), not because they are effective in finding terrorists. They have to use them a lot to justify the massive investment. Instead, such machines should be used only a very little, kept off to the side for special times when there is some STRONG indication that the person might be hiding a bomb. Otherwise, forget about it. The problem with all of this techno junk is that once it is in place, no one can stop it and then the TSA is off trying to come up with another "fix" to a problem with mutates and changes faster than they can keep up. As things stand now, we are creating a domestic spy and stop agency in the name of limiting foreign based terrorism. This is a cascading disaster. Our freedoms are being eroded in small bits.

There is no end to this. It just goes on and on forever, like a cancer that doesn't kill but still does great harm.

Here is a question to consider: when would it ever be consider appropriate to back down from such intrusive measures? In a generation or two, when there is no one left with strong memories of 9-11, 2001? You can NEVER fully justify stepping back because, security "experts" will tell you, there is always a risk.

The TSA is a massive waste of taxpayer money and John Pistole is this administration's "Brownie" for his adamant and down right mean defense of the scanners last November. To my mind, instead of a public servant, he spoke like a tired cop trying to get teenagers to leave a drunken party. We are not children.

Pistole's worst offense, and it was a big one, was to announce that traveling is a privilege, not a right. This is, ah, somewhat in disagreement with our Constitution and many court rulings. Here, the government is the subject of the people, not the other way around. I would hope he would study that fact and remember it as he goes about his unfortunate business.

Doug Terry at TerryReport com

Posted by: terryreport | February 1, 2011 1:56 PM | Report abuse

F*** the TSA and their porno-scanners.

Posted by: pgr88 | February 1, 2011 2:10 PM | Report abuse

1. They're still a waste of money, as they're useless at detecting material hidden in body cavities (or material "pancaked" against the abdomen).

2. If they emit radiation, they're still potentially hazardous.

3. I'd like to see what the new images look like. It was really awkward seeing news reports of the old ones, because there would be some official saying, "You can't see any genitalia on these scans," and meanwhile the Guy Scan image had a clear ding-a-ling outline.

Posted by: dkp01 | February 1, 2011 2:25 PM | Report abuse

I refuse to fly until this strip-search policy is discontinued. I don't care what the x-rays do or do not reveal, I will not submit to such intrusive examination, nor will I have a stranger's hands on my body, period.

My father used to tell about World War II, when, if you complained about some shortage or rules that were in effect, somebody was always around to ask you, "Don't you know there's a WAR going on?" I am just as weary of hearing about 9/11. We KNOW what happened, but draconian measures for everyone is not the answer to terrorism. If everyone will wake up and do their job, we won't need body monitors to get on an airplane, we'll have the FBI and CIA and Homeland Security (gawd, what a vision that conjures up) catching the terrorists.

Find the person who suggested touching everyone and give him/her a whomp upside the head.

Posted by: txmarjie | February 1, 2011 3:03 PM | Report abuse

This is stupid- the issue is how much radiation you are being exposed to. Experts say that the recommended amount is ZERO.

Posted by: staussfamily | February 1, 2011 3:20 PM | Report abuse

I agree with the people who have commented about the radiation issue. The TSA claims that they've been assured the devices are not harmful. Assured by whom, and what review process was used? Put it out there for verification! Recall those x-ray boxes that used to be used in the shoe stores that were supposedly safe and were later proven to be anything but safe. Why should we believe the TSA that these devices are any different?

Posted by: 1995hoo | February 1, 2011 3:22 PM | Report abuse

The body scanner is intrusive, but I hate the $5-an-hour-power nameless* Gestapo who go through your things. Can we focus on them next, like firing them all and sending them back to Burger King?

*Most of them have taken to waering their badges backward so we can't identify them. Another fascist move. If you're so ashamed of your job you don't even want us to know your name, maybe you shouldn't be in that job. Or, you're tacitly acknowledging that the job itself is shameful.

Posted by: bucinka8 | February 1, 2011 3:29 PM | Report abuse

How much has the TSA spent on the 'old' machines, the ones pushed by former DHS Sec'y Chertoff, & how much are these new ones going to cost? What happens to all the 'old' machines that haven't been installed yet? Go the way of the puffers?

Can we keep our shoes, belts, jewelry, watches, etc. on?

What about the TSA's penchant for 'enhanced patdowns' even after the pax has cleared the machine-is that going to go away?

Posted by: txrus | February 1, 2011 3:29 PM | Report abuse

TSA is a waste of money. Bleep the scanners and bring back the dogs!!! If TSA ever managed to catch anything -highly unlikely even if they weren't incompetent- what the bleepies would they do? I'd rather have a bomb sniffing security dog protecting me than a TSA (sorry) moron.

Posted by: hebe1 | February 1, 2011 3:38 PM | Report abuse

It's still intrusive and risky. They're still invading peoples' privacy and inconveniencing travelers with machines that don't add to safety and do correspond to X-rays and therefore cause health problems with repeated use. If the TSA can't adopt security screening that works, such as observing suspicious behavior rather than engaging in an expensive and fruitless search for weapons, then they need to make way for someone else.

Posted by: dblissmn | February 1, 2011 3:45 PM | Report abuse

//"According to the TSA, the new software is being tested on millimeter wave machines, but the agency plans to test similar software on backscatter units."//

Okay, so explain to the people the controversy betwen millimeter wave machines and backscatter units because I object not only to nudoscopes but to increased cancer risks.

Posted by: SarahBB | February 1, 2011 3:51 PM | Report abuse

How does this help in the slightest?

People are concerned about the safety of these machines, especially when they are malfunctioning or miscalibrated (as will inevitably happen from time to time).

And even if privacy is your issue, how are your concerns relieved by the fact that the external display is blurred? The machine still has your full naked body image, and it's just as subject to the same abuses you were worried about before.

Posted by: Itzajob | February 1, 2011 3:58 PM | Report abuse

I still want to pass on getting bombarded with radiation, thanks.

Posted by: futbolclif | February 1, 2011 4:19 PM | Report abuse

X-ray scanners! Hello! There is a long history of the US government minimizing the risks of radiation of all types, and the same is true for the scanning industry.

I don't care about them looking at my body, but how dare the government force us to assume a health risk like this? I would honestly rather travel nude than put up with this.

Posted by: scientist1 | February 1, 2011 4:21 PM | Report abuse

What company manufactured these new scanners and how much is this new security theater costing the tax payers? Inquiring minds want to know.

Posted by: amy_l | February 1, 2011 4:29 PM | Report abuse

X-ray scanners! Hello! There is a long history of the US government minimizing the risks of radiation of all types, and the same is true for the scanning industry.

I don't care about them looking at my body, but how dare the government force us to assume a health risk like this? I would honestly rather travel nude than put up with this.

Posted by: scientist1 | February 1, 2011 4:37 PM | Report abuse

The US government doesn't seem to have changed its "virtual" strip search mission: To find women wearing sanitary napkins and subject them to humiliating questioning and intimate physical search.

I don't see how this makes any difference; it doesn't make me any more willing to travel in the US.

Posted by: commentariette | February 1, 2011 4:52 PM | Report abuse

This article is somewhat misleading. The millimeter wave machines do not need a software "fix" to blur their images and ensure passenger privacy. Their outputs are an already-pixelated image of the body. It is the backscatter machines that require additional programming, and cost, to blur their outputs. The millimeter wave machines use a passive technology that picks up the body's natural emissions and they re totally safe. The real problem here is that this is the technology that should have been employed in the first place. It is only now, begrudgingly, being employed in any significant numbers at airports. The fact is that Pistole's technology folks made a knee-jerk reaction in purchasing the backscatter units produced by RapidScan and L-3 using Stimulus Funds following the Christmas bombing attempt in Detroit a few years back. They didn't properly check this technology for either safety or privacy. Bureaucrats being bureaucrats, they also didn't want to admit their mistake after the fact. So what did they do? They circles the wagons/closed ranks and worked double time to keep the safe millimeter wave technology out of the mix! They spent millions in computer programming to blur the backscatter machines' normally clear (and invasive) images. They never did, and can't, solve the safety problem as this technology is inherently dangerous. They also spent millions in extra manpower to remote the screens to back rooms where double personnel shifts needed to be used to ensure that a lone security agent wasn't oogling over the clear images of the female form. In fact, the millimeter wave machine's producer, Brijot, was practically barred from genuine participation in the program. They only received a token look from Pistole's technologists. But through dogged persistence and at a cost of millions of their own marketing and lobbying dollars Brijot is back in the game providing the safe and better solution. This article clearly casts the two technologies as similar and fraught with the same problems and it is simply not the case. This is a rare instance where common sense actually is winning out and the better solution is being re-introduced through the dysfunctional selection and procurement process.

Posted by: rmann3 | February 2, 2011 7:08 AM | Report abuse

Backscatter machines are a definite radiation risk.
The government claims that the dosage is too low to be cause for concern. However, this assumes that the radiation is distributed all over in the body.
Several scientists maintain that is false.
The type of radiation used is absorbed in the skin and does not travel further into the body. Thus, the dosage received by the skin is much higher than the claimed "safe dosage".
Hello skin cancer !

I would like to see the WaPo publish which airports use backscatter machines and which use millimeter wave ones.

Posted by: observer31 | February 2, 2011 10:22 AM | Report abuse

How does the blinking light know what is contraband? It sounds like this would lead to more strip searches than we have already.

Posted by: getjiggly1 | February 2, 2011 1:49 PM | Report abuse

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