TSA trading body-scanning machines for less revealing ones

Tom Fontaine
| Friday, Jan. 18, 2013, 1:38 p.m.

The Transportation Security Administration said on Friday it is removing almost 200 body-scanning machines from airport checkpoints — including five in Pittsburgh — because the manufacturer could not make the images they produce of travelers' bodies less revealing.

Rapiscan Systems, maker of the so-called backscatter machines, told the TSA it will not meet a congressional deadline to recalibrate scanners to generate generic images of passengers' bodies that resemble chalk etchings.

The machines generated privacy complaints and late-night TV jokes because they produce detailed images of bodies beneath clothing that resemble blurry photo negatives. Some groups complained because the machines produce low levels of radiation, though TSA has insisted they are not dangerous to employees or passengers. One trip through a backscatter machine exposes people to about the same amount of radiation as two to three minutes of flying in an airplane, officials said.

The goal of the machines, first installed in Phoenix in 2007, was to find more hidden weapons or explosives.

Sharon DeWitt, 62, of Morgantown, W.Va., said the backscatter machines make her uncomfortable, but she has found a way to cope.

“I close my eyes and go into another realm of my mind when I go through them. I figure if I close my eyes, they can't see me and I can't see them,” DeWitt said before boarding a flight at Pittsburgh International Airport, which began using the machines in November 2010.

At the same time, DeWitt said, “If it keeps people safe, then I'm willing to put up with it.”

Randi Sigal, 53, of O'Hara said she's also willing to give up a little privacy for safety. “I figure if someone's going to look at my body, so be it,” she said.

TSA said the change wasn't tied to complaints.

“TSA has strict requirements that all vendors must meet for security effectiveness and efficiency,” the TSA said.

The TSA said Rapiscan will absorb the cost of removing the 174 machines from airports across the country and 76 more that are warehoused in Texas, along with the cost of replacement machines made by another manufacturer.

The replacements — which will be in place by June — use electromagnetic waves to detect items concealed under a passenger's clothing. A screen beside the machine highlights any items that require further screening on a generic outline of a person that is identical for all passengers. If no items are detected, the screen simply says “OK” and no image appears.

With the backscatter, a TSA officer views images of all passengers from a private room and relays information about any items that require further screening to another officer posted at the machine.

The replacement machines cost about $180,000 apiece, the TSA said. That could run Rapiscan more than $30 million, but the TSA said it's not known whether the agency will replace all 174 backscatter machines installed at airports.

Deepak Chopra, president and CEO of OSI Systems Inc., the parent company of Torrance, Calif.-based Rapiscan, called the agreement with TSA “mutually satisfactory,” and said it will offer the discarded machines to other government agencies that want them.

Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or tfontaine@tribweb.com.

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