Scientists say they have solution to TSA scanner objections

The head of the Transportation Security Administration acknowledged that new full-body scanners and pat-downs can be invasive and uncomfortable, but he said that the need to stay a step ahead of terrorists rules out changes in airport screening. (Nov. 21)
By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 22, 2010; 12:57 AM

A cheap and simple fix in the computer software of new airport scanners could silence the uproar from travelers who object to the so-called virtual strip search, according to a scientist who helped develop the program at one of the federal government's most prestigious institutes.

The researcher, associated with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, said he was rebuffed when he offered the concept to Department of Homeland Security officials four years ago.

The fix would distort the images captured on full-body scanners so they look like reflections in a fun-house mirror, but any potentially dangerous objects would be clearly revealed, said Willard "Bill" Wattenburg, a former nuclear weapons designer at the Livermore lab. The scanners normally produce real-time outlines of the naked human body, and the Transportation Security Administration has been embroiled in controversy since installation of the new scanners began last month.

"Why not just distort the image into something grotesque so that there isn't anything titillating or exciting about it?" Wattenburg said.

TSA spokesman Nick Kimball said he could not immediately confirm Wattenburg's 2006 conversation with federal officials. "That was another administration," Kimball said.

But Obama administration officials made an effort over the weekend to address travelers' complaints.

People who object to the scanners are given the option of an "enhanced" pat-down by TSA agents that includes the touching of clothed genital areas. For many, that option is even less palatable; opponents have likened the process to sexual assault.

President Obama said in Lisbon on Saturday that he had asked TSA officials whether there's a less intrusive way to ensure travel safety. "I understand people's frustrations," he said, adding that he had told the TSA that "you have to constantly refine and measure whether what we're doing is the only way to assure the American people's safety."

Transportation Security Administration head John Pistole reiterated in a statement Sunday that the agency would make screening methods "as minimally invasive as possible."

Last week Pistole defended the body scanners and "enhanced pat-downs" in the face of questions from two Senate committees.

On CBS's "Face The Nation," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who isn't subject to the screening, said she understands "how difficult it is and how offensive it must be for the people who are going through it."

But terrorists are "getting more creative about what they do to hide explosives in, you know, crazy things like underwear," she said. "So, clearly, there is a need."

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