TSA to remove nudie scanners from airports because they couldn’t make them less nekkid

posted at 12:33 pm on January 18, 2013 by Mary Katharine Ham

A minor victory for those of us who think security theater shouldn’t look like a Pussycat Theater. If you’re ineffectively protecting us, we should at least have the dignity of our clothing to cling to. The company that makes the scanners— named Rapiscan, apparently without irony— had a chance to make them less invasive, but couldn’t do it.

The U.S. Transportation Security Administration will remove airport body scanners that privacy advocates likened to strip searches after OSI Systems Inc. (OSIS) couldn’t write software to make passenger images less revealing.

TSA will end a $5 million contract with OSI’s Rapiscan unit for the software after Administrator John Pistole concluded the company couldn’t meet a congressional deadline to produce generic passenger images, agency officials said in interviews.

There will still be backscatter and millimeter wave scanners , but made by different companies (L-3, Smiths Group Plc, and American Science & Engineering Inc.) and with required privacy protections. They’re also advertised as faster:

Under pressure from privacy advocates and some members of Congress, the TSA moved its screens to separate rooms away from airport security checkpoints. Officials monitoring the scanner images alert agents if they see a possible risk.

The agency put out a contract in August 2010 asking L-3 and Rapiscan to develop the software to make images less revealing. L-3 developed its product in 2011, according to John Sanders, the TSA’s assistant administrator for security capabilities.

Rapiscan recently indicated to agency officials that it couldn’t deliver its software until 2014, Sanders said. It couldn’t come up with an algorithm that met the agency’s standards for accurately detecting objects without generating false alarms, he said.

“You can have a high probability of detection but a great deal of alarm,” Sanders said. “Everybody’s alarming. That doesn’t work from an operational perspective.”

Someone will still get the pleasure of going through the Rapiscan procedure, though, as Wired notes:

However, the scanners aren’t on the way to the junk yard just yet. OSI has struck a deal with the TSA which will see the machines being used by multiple government agencies across the country. That does, at least, mean that it will be federal employees who have their genitals imaged, as opposed to the public.

The news will no doubt be embraced by the legion of protesters, outraged by the privacy implications of the naked body scanners. But save a thought for the poor TSA employees: how are they going to get their kicks now?

And, in what is probably my favorite part of this story, the TSA would like to make sure you know just how little it cares about your privacy:

Sanders said the Rapiscan units did their job by screening 130 million passengers, and the agency wouldn’t have acted if not for the congressional mandate for privacy software.

“We are not pulling them out because they haven’t been effective, and we are not pulling them out for safety reasons,” Sanders said. “We’re pulling them out because there’s a congressional mandate.”

That seems at odds with Sanders’ earlier statement, highlighted above, about false alarms, but the important thing is the privacy and comfort of law-abiding passengers are not part of the agency’s calculus.

By the way, we are still waiting for the TSA to comply with a 2011 court order to hold public hearings on the scanners and other junk-touching related security. An appeals court gave them until March of this year after they defied the order for more than a year, but I imagine they’ll argue the removal of Rapiscan’s scanners precludes the need for public discussion of their methods. Sure, move along, nothing to talk about, here.

Previous:

Surprise: TSA hasn’t held court-ordered public hearings on scanners, junk-touching

Pat-down: Federal court demands to know why TSA it’s defying court order

Transparency: TSA takes 4 years to respond to one simple FOIA request

TSA Theft of Passenger Valuables a Nationwide Problem

TSA chief to senators: I can arrange to have your junk touched if you’d like

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