WASHINGTON -- As the uproar over the government's use of pat-downs and full-body scanners at airports ebbs, new technology is being tested that is designed to allay privacy concerns over the grainy nude images produced by the machines.
Scanners being tested in three U.S. airports starting this week will only display for screeners a generic stick figure, and any suspicious object on a passenger's body will be flagged for inspection by a pale red box on the drawing. A passenger cleared to go will see the screen flash green and read "OK."
Yet even as the new software debuts, the brief public outcry over the new measures during the holiday travel season did not produce a significant surge in complaints by air travelers. While 100 million fliers have passed through airport checkpoints since Nov. 1, the Transportation Security Administration has received fewer than 5,500 complaints about the procedures, or less than 0.01 percent.
And most of those complaints, TSA officials said, were not from individuals who were flying. Fewer than 800 complaints about the pat-downs and 300 complaints about the full-body scans were lodged by actual travelers. The rest came from individuals who had not gone through the procedures, but nonetheless complained about them, TSA officials say.
The software being tested would replace the revealing images generated by millimeter wave scanners and currently viewed by a TSA agent in a separate room. The new computer program identifies hidden foreign objects and indicates to TSA searchers where to look on the person's body during a pat-down.
Full-body scanners are able to detect nonmetallic items, such as the explosives used by the Christmas Day bomber in 2009, TSA Administrator John Pistole said at a demonstration of the new software on Tuesday. The TSA instituted the new procedures in response to an elevated threat to airlines following a thwarted mail bomb plot originating in Yemen in late October.
While the new software could address privacy concerns, it does not answer complaints about the radiation from another type of scanner, called backscatter, that works using low-dose X-rays. Studies have shown passengers would have to pass through a backscatter machine 5,000 times before being exposed to the same amount of radiation as a single chest X-ray.