'Naked image' scanners set for Sea-Tac, elsewhere might change

WASHINGTON - Holli Powell, a Phoenix medical software consultant who flies every week, says she avoids getting into airport security lines that end at what she calls a humiliating full-body scanner.

“Those scanners, I feel, are above and beyond,” Powell, 35, said in an interview. They generate “nearly naked images.”

The concerns of travelers such as Powell prompted privacy advocates to sue the government. They may soon be eased. L-3 Communications Holdings and OSI Systems’ Rapiscan, makers of the scanners for U.S. airports including Sea-Tac Airport, are delivering software upgrades that show a generic figure rather than an actual image of a passenger’s body parts. The new display would mark sections of a person’s body that need to be checked.

The revisions “certainly address most of the privacy concerns,” Peter Kant, a Rapiscan executive vice president, said in an interview. Every passenger will generate an avatar that “looks like a guy wearing a baseball cap,” he said.

The Transportation Security Administration aims to add the software to the machines, which sparked complaints, as more airports get the scanners. As of Aug. 27, 194 of the devices were in use at 51 U.S. airports, an almost fivefold increase from six months ago. Sea-Tac Airport is set to install them this year.

“TSA continues to explore additional privacy protections for imaging technology,” Greg Soule, a spokesman for the security agency, said in an e-mail. “Testing is currently under way.”

The agency is accelerating use of the scanners after federal authorities said Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight on approach to Detroit on Dec. 25 by igniting explosives in his underpants. The 1,000 scanners due at airports by the end of next year will put the devices at more than half the security lanes at major U.S. airports.

In addition to Sea-Tac, the 28 airports getting scanners in the second half of this year include New York’s Kennedy and Philadelphia, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Houston, Miami, Baltimore and Minneapolis, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in July.

New York-based L-3, which already has one of its revised scanners in use at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, presented its upgrade Aug. 31, and the technology is being reviewed in a federal laboratory, according to the company.

OSI’s Rapiscan, based in Torrance, Calif., plans to present software for its machines this month, Kant said. The agency will test the software change, he said.

L-3 and Rapiscan shared a $47.9 million contract in April for 302 of the scanners. L-3 will get $31.7 million to build 202 machines, and Rapiscan $16.2 million for 100. The funds were to come from last year’s $814 billion stimulus law.

The software changes are “a pretty substantial development” for the companies and “something that TSA has wanted,” said Jeffrey Sural, a former assistant administrator at the security agency. “There’s still a long way to go,” and months will be spent testing the technology, he said.

Using full-body imaging technology is voluntary, though passengers who refuse to be scanned may be frisked.

Machines now at airports are monitored by a TSA employee in a separate room, to prevent passengers and security workers at the checkpoint from viewing the full-body image that sees through undergarments. The software upgrade would replace the images with an avatar and alert authorities to a potential hidden threat, eliminating the need to keep an employee in a remote room.

The upgrade “really reduces the personnel costs,” Rapiscan’s Kant said. However, the Government Accountability Office estimated in March that agency staffing costs could climb $2.4 billion over seven years from expanded use of scanners, assuming current staffing requirements.