KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Shaped like a pear? An hourglass? A brick?
Soon you might be able to walk through airport body scanners confident that uniformed screeners monitoring the machines won't see your particular figure.
The Transportation Security Administration has developed software for scanners that could better protect your privacy at the security checkpoint.
The new software, being tested at three airports, creates a generic image in place of the fuzzy outline of each person that the scanners now produce.
The image will be identical for everyone, reducing the embarrassment that passengers might feel about a machine exposing every lump and bump under their clothes.
"The TSA is feeling pressure on the privacy issue," said Amy Stepanovich, national security fellow for the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
The new technology has been installed in Atlanta, Las Vegas and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
The development comes months after a national uproar about more aggressive pat-down security techniques coupled with skepticism about the health and privacy implications of the scanners.
The TSA started using body scanners as early as 2007, and they have been expanding into airports across the country. Their use escalated after a Nigerian man tried to blow up an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009 with explosives in his underwear.
There are 486 body scanners at 78 airports nationwide.
The TSA has said the scanners enhance security because they can find non-metallic objects and liquids that could pose threats. They also say the scanners can thoroughly screen more passengers in less time.
But the scanners have stirred distrust. Some passengers think machines peering under their clothes are too nosy.
"I don't think they're too keen of an idea," said Herb Geier of Bonita, Calif., as he waited to board a flight at Kansas City International Airport.
"My old body they don't care about. But some young honey is going to end up on the Internet."
That fear, the TSA says, has never been warranted. The agency has always said that all images are deleted as soon as any problem is resolved.
The images are not stored, transmitted or printed, officials said. Employees reviewing pictures are in a remote area so they can't connect a particular passenger to an image.
With the new software, the scanners will identify a threat on the generic body image, signaling a need for more screening. If nothing is found on the passenger, the word "OK" appears on the monitor.
The technology is being tested first on scanners -- known as millimeter wave machines -- that use radio frequency energy to create a black-and-white image that's examined for security threats. There are 239 millimeter wave machines at 40 airports.
Lab work is under way on software for another type of scanner, backscatter machines, that use low-intensity X-ray beams to create a body image. There are 247 backscatter machines at 38 airports.
When the software for the backscatter units meets detection standards, it will be tested in airports. Officials say that could be months away.
The TSA spent about $2.7 million to develop, deploy and maintain the new software.
The machines, sometimes called "nude body scanners," have been criticized as tantamount to high-tech strip searches.
Their constitutionality has been questioned in at least three lawsuits. One suit, filed at the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, is scheduled for oral arguments next month.
It was brought by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which is seeking to limit the government's use of body scanners.
Some critics, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, are glad to see the government take steps to address traveler complaints. But the ACLU still has reservations.
"The machine is still taking a naked image of you. This is simply a software package that's masking that image. The naked picture is still in the machine somewhere," said Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for the ACLU.
The ACLU will continue to monitor the scanners, including the fallout of the new software, Calabrese said. The ACLU wants to make sure the new system doesn't drive screeners to do more pat-down searches.
"We think the pat-downs are equally invasive, and in many cases some people feel they are more invasive." he said.
Yet several polls have shown that the public is satisfied with the scanners. People see them as a compromise to fly safely.
"I probably see more at the beach. It doesn't bother me a bit," said Skylar Wolfe of West Lafayette, Ind., as he waited for a plane last week at KCI.
"We're obsessed over our personal privacy being infringed upon. I don't think that's true."
Meanwhile, the Electronic Privacy Information Center is battling the federal government to get details about how the new software works and its effect on fliers.
"It's very hard to figure out really how it works on the machines it's installed on," Stepanovich said. "All we have to rely on is the public releases put out by the TSA themselves."
The new software doesn't change the privacy center's core opposition to the scanners, Stepanovich said. The machines, she said, are still "invasive, unlawful and ineffective."
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