Documents send mixed signal on airport scanners


POSTED: Friday, January 15, 2010

WASHINGTON » The Transportation Security Administration has promised not to store or transmit nude images of airline passengers made by whole-body scanners, but when it asked manufacturers to submit bids for such machines, it required that the scanners have exactly those capabilities, according to agency documents obtained in a lawsuit.

The bid specifications, obtained by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, also show that companies wanting to sell such machines to the government were required to equip them with “;10 selectable levels of privacy,”; although the document, which was partly censored before its release, does not specify what those are. Some of the machines provide blurring, or the electronic equivalent of a G-string over the genitals.

The government required that the machines have a testing mode that would allow the “;exporting of image data”; and provide “;a secure means for high-speed transfer of image data,”; according to the documents.

The images to be stored and transmitted are supposed to be of test subjects, not passengers, for training purposes.

The agency has said that images of passengers will not be transmitted or stored. The documents make clear that as the images are made, they will be sent to a display screen in a remote room to an operator who cannot see the actual passenger, and that the operator will delete the image after examining it.

The machines are supposed to provide “;image filters to protect the identity, modesty and privacy of the passenger,”; the companies were told, but the filters have to be modifiable by users with higher-level passwords.

The documents were initially marked as “;security sensitive information,”; which is a level of secrecy lower than “;classified.”;

Two TSA officials, speaking on the condition that they not be identified by name, said that the scanners are delivered with the ability to store and transmit images, but that these capabilities are disabled by the agency before the machines are installed at an airport and that officers at the airport cannot re-enable them. The operator, who is forbidden to take a camera into the remote room, must clear one image before the next passenger image can be seen, they said.

Critics call the machines the digital equivalent of a strip search and say the machines' ability to record images could be abused by operators.

“;This is in direct contradiction to multiple assurances, that they could not capture nor would they store these images,”; said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah. “;Obviously, they have a capability of doing both, and the intention of doing both.”;

Marc Rotenberg, the executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a research center in Washington that supports greater privacy protection, said that in addition to violating the privacy of travelers, the machines might not achieve their intended purpose, because the documents make no mention of one form of explosives: powders.

The machines provide a clear image of passengers under their clothes and are meant to find threats that existing metal detectors cannot, like ceramic knives and bomb components. The TSA initially said the machines would be used only for secondary screening—that is, when screeners had a special reason to believe that a passenger required closer scrutiny—but the government now plans to have 450 of them by the end of September and use them as a first-line tool.