Civil libertarians led by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) called on homeland security chief Janet Napolitano to suspend the roll out of whole body imaging technology by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) at U.S. airports to solicit public comment because the new security machines perform a virtual strip search of passengers.
TSA officials, on the other hand, say whole body imaging is fast, efficient, and protects privacy, especially for travelers who do not like the traditional pat-down approach during secondary screening where TSA officers actually touch the body in search of contraband.
The system uses a pair of security officers. The one working the machine never sees the image, which appears on a computer screen behind closed doors elsewhere; and the remotely located officer who sees the image never sees the passenger.
As further protection, a passenger's face is blurred and the image as a whole "resembles a fuzzy negative," said TSA's Lee. The officers monitoring images aren't allowed to bring cameras, cell phones or any recording device into the room, and the computers have been programmed so they have "zero storage capability" and images are "automatically deleted," she added.
Civil libertarians, however, aren’t buying it. They want more oversight of the program, full disclosure about the technology to passengers, and TSA to draft policy that does not allow it to introduce better technology with clearer images down the road.
"Having blurry images shouldn't blur the issue," said Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
Chris Calabrese, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, said this technology could easily exploit the Brad Pitts of this world.
“Screeners at LAX could make a fortune off naked virtual images of celebrities,” he said.
Currently, 40 whole body imagers are being tested in 19 airports across the United States. Some machines perform primary screening while others are used in a secondary screening capacity. The Star Trek-like machines build by L3 Communications Security and Detection Systems cost $170,000 each.
♦Photo by TSA