TSA to Ask Public About Naked-Image Scanners, Pat-Downs

The U.S. Transportation Security Administration, under court order, will start a rulemaking process on its airport screening machines, including collecting and analyzing public comments about the full-body pat-downs used when passengers opt out of scanning.

The proposed regulation was posted on a Federal Register website today, said David Castelveter, an agency spokesman. The TSA isn’t proposing any change to its current screening procedures using the machines, known as advanced-imaging technology, he said.

“TSA’s experience in using AIT confirms that it is effective in detecting small, non-metallic items hidden underneath passenger clothing that could otherwise escape detection,” the agency said in its proposed rule.

The AIT machines have drawn objections from the public, which complained about the nearly naked images they produced. TSA allowed passengers concerned about privacy or the possible health effects from backscatter radiation -- one of two technologies employed -- to undergo pat-down screening.

The move comes almost three years after the TSA awarded a $47.9 million contract to L-3 Communications Holdings Inc. and OSI Systems Inc.’s Rapiscan unit to develop full-body scanners, known as advanced-imaging technology.

The TSA accelerated its use of advanced scanners in 2010 following the failed Dec. 25, 2009 attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight by igniting explosives in his underwear. If the attack had succeeded, almost 300 people would have been killed, TSA said.

Aviation Threats

The machines are needed because U.S. intelligence on evolving aviation threats suggests terrorists are still targeting planes and they’re more likely to use small, potent bombs to try to take them down, the agency said.

A U.S. appeals court in 2011 ordered the rulemaking as the result of a lawsuit filed by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a civil liberties group. The group unsuccessfully sought to suspend the body-scanner program, which it likened to an electronic strip-search, as a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

The pat-downs have been as controversial as the full-body scans and are the subject of frequent complaints from travelers on the Internet and from lawmakers in Congress.

Software Filters

The use of scanning machines has changed since they were first introduced in 2008. The TSA has used software privacy filters to generate generic stick figures rather than almost-nude images on screens at the checkpoint.

In January, the agency terminated a $5 million contract with Rapiscan and said it would remove those machines from airports after the company said it couldn’t finish writing the privacy software by a deadline imposed by Congress.

As part of the rulemaking, TSA estimated the agency’s net costs for deploying advanced scanners to range from $1.3 billion to $1.5 billion from 2012 through 2015.

TSA will collect comments in its public docket for 90 days, and will analyze the responses before issuing a final regulation.