TSA debuts less-intrusive body scanners at D/FW

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by Casey Norton and Shon Gables

WFAA & The Associated Press

Posted on September 2, 2011 at 9:38 PM

DALLAS - The Transportation Security Administration is upgrading its full body scanners at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport with new software. 

The TSA says the software change will make the security process faster and less invasive. The upgrade comes on the heels of a German study that says the scanners are unreliable.

"The software enhances privacy by eliminating passenger specific images, and instead depicts anomalies found during the screening process," said Mike Donnelly, Department of Federal Security.

The upgrades, which will be installed in 40 airports over the next several months, will detect potential threat items and produce a generic, computerized outline of the person's body.

The body imaging machines used since last fall have been heavily criticized for showing images of naked bodies. The images were viewed by a TSA screener in a separate room, leading to concerns that the images could be saved and disseminated.

Under the new system, the images are displayed on a screen that is visible to travelers.

The software has been upgraded into the 14 Advanced Imaging machines currently in use at D/FW. With the update, screeners can only see a generic body outline. In the past, they saw a three-dimensional representation of every passenger's body shape.

Automatic target recognition (ATR) highlights areas on a person's body where the machine targets a potential threat. The monitor gives an "OK" on a green screen when people are cleared to proceed. Those who the machine flags are then checked by an agent.

"With the installation of the new software, we are able to strengthen privacy protections for passengers without compromising the safety and security of the traveling public." Donnelly said.

Testing for the new software began in the fall of 2010.

The German study criticizing the body scanning technology was performed over 10 months at the Hamburg Airport. It showed the scanners give false readings 49 percent of the time. 

Germany is refusing to use them at all airports because they can't tell the difference between body sweat and bomb materials, one official told ABC News.

American watchdog groups echo the claims. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) said millimeter wave scans are less than effective and could waste more time by requiring more pat downs.

"When they can't distinguish between body sweat and explosives, and the pleats in a passengers pants and an underwear bomb, it's not making anyone safer," said John Verdi, of EPIC.

Anyone flying out of the five terminals of D/FW Airport may still be subject to the controversial body pat-downs.

The TSA expects 250 scanners nationwide to have the new software by the end of September.  They are made by L-3 Communications and cost about $170,000 each. However, the agency believes it will save money  by eliminating the need for private screening rooms and extra personnel, who had to watch the monitors before the software upgrade.

E-mail cnorton@wfaa.com and sgables@wfaa.com

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