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TSA Testing out Kinder, Gentler Body Scan

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As promised, the TSA is testing out new body scanner software that produces a generic, gender-neutral silhouette rather than a detailed X-ray image of passengers’ naked bodies.

According to the Washington Post, the new software displays a red box on the silhouette to identify potential concealed items. Passengers are then screened to determine what set off the scanner. If nothing is detected, the scanner displays a green “OK.” The Post says the scanners are coming to Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., and Hartsfield Jackson Airport in Atlanta. Msnbc says the new software will also be tested in Las Vegas.

Regardless of what you think about the scanners and the TSA, you have to give the agency some credit here. TSA chief John Pistole told a Senate subcommittee in November that he was pushing for this sort of technology, and now we know he wasn’t just paying lip service to those of us concerned about the body scanners’ invasions of privacy.

This is all well and good, but does it actually change anything? I spoke to Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel at the ACLU, who told me that while the TSA’s move toward a less-invasive body scanner is good, there needs to be more. “We’re heartened that the TSA is taking these kinds of steps, but we’d like to see traveler’s privacy rights enshrined in law,” he said. Calabrese pointed out that while the software alters what screeners see, the machine is still actually producing the naked image. The software is just window dressing, meaning concerns remain that X-ray images could be extracted from the machines.

“Remember, this is TSA policy, not law,” Calabrese said. “The TSA can change its policy whenever it wants—this time, it made a positive change.” Until there’s a law outlining what the TSA can and can’t do, we’re subject to its whims.

For the time being, however, this is something to be happy about. Since this is a software solution, as opposed to an entirely new scanning device, the technology could be broadly implemented in a relatively short period of time following the testing phase. So let’s hope those tests go well, and that this reflects a commitment on the TSA’s part to find a better balance between security and privacy.

Now if we could only do something about those godforsaken pat downs … 

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