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Scientists say they have solution to TSA scanner objections

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."

If she did have to be screened, she said, she would opt for a pat-down instead.

Protests in security lines

Some travelers are planning a protest against the new security measures on the day before Thanksgiving, one of the busiest travel days of the year.

An Ashburn man, Brian J. Sodergren, is organizing a national "opt out" day to encourage passengers to say no to using the new body scanners. He wants people to insist on public pat-downs.

"Many people only fly around the holidays and may not be aware of the security changes," Sodergren told The Washington Post. "I think once people are made aware of what is happening, they may have reservations about the new procedures."

The pat-downs will also probably slow security lines. According to the TSA, the body scan takes about five seconds, with an extra 10 to 15 seconds for processing. Pat-downs take 1 to 2 minutes.

According to a holiday travel message by Pistole that was released over the weekend, you can opt out of using the full-body scanner, but if you make that choice "you will receive a thorough pat-down by someone of the same gender. If you alarm either the metal detector or the [body scanner] , you will also receive a thorough pat-down by someone of the same gender."

Pistole says fliers can request that the pat-downs be conducted in a private room and can request that it be "witnessed by a person of your choice."

A California man became an instant folk hero among the protestors when a recording he made with his camera phone at airport security in San Diego went viral on the Internet. In the video, he threatens a TSA agent with arrest if "you touch my junk" during a pat-down. Last week in Indianapolis, a passenger was arrested after he submitted to a body scan and then punched a TSA agent who didn't respond to his questioning about enhanced security procedures.

Last week, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) even introduced a bill, the American Traveler Dignity Act, to discourage the new screenings.

"It establishes that airport security screeners are not immune from any U.S. law regarding physical contact with another person, making images of another person, or causing physical harm through the use of radiation-emitting machinery on another person," Paul said on the floor of the House.

For most Americans, however, the new system appears to be an acceptable next step in a series of security upticks to combat terrorism. In a CBS poll, 81 percent of people said they supported using full-body scanners. With 1.6 million Americans planning to fly during Thanksgiving weekend, the TSA said that Internet and talk show conversations have morphed rumors into incorrect "facts."

A predicted outcry

Wattenburg said that when news reached Livermore in 2006 that the TSA planned to buy the new generation of "backscatter" full-body scanners, the problem seemed clear. "We knew what was going to happen," he said. "People are immediately going to scream like hell because they're taking the clothes off everybody."

Livermore engineers have been deeply involved in enhancing airport security.

Wattenburg said a Livermore colleague, Ed Moses, turned to him and said, "There must be some way to modify the scanner images so that they do not reveal embarrassing things about a person's body profile."

Wattenburg, whose long resume includes designing anti-terrorist devices, sketched out a possible solution and delivered it to Moses, whose computer experts refined the concept.

"Materials you were looking for would still be there, but body shapes wouldn't be apparent," Moses, the principal assistant director of the Livermore lab said on Saturday. "From the point of view of imaging it's very straightforward. Someone should do a quick study of it in an operational setting."

The Livermore laboratory sent off a final application to the U.S. Patent Office on Nov. 23, 2006, and about three weeks later Wattenburg said he called the Department of Homeland Security to share the good news. The patent application is on appeal, according to government records, but the federal government owns the rights to the idea.

"These guys usually come to us when they have a huge problem," Wattenburg said on Thursday. "If it's something simple, we tell them and they don't listen."

Wattenburg says the program is so simple that "a 6-year-old could do the same thing with Photoshop."

He said the TSA scanners could be altered so that they "would record an image that you would recognize; it would be totally uninteresting," but any potentially dangerous objects would be just as evident as they are now.

"There is absolutely nothing that they would lose in terms of the imagery by using this," Wattenburg said.

Wattenburg said the new TSA machines could be readily reconfigured. "It's probably a few weeks' modification of the program," he said. "It's like changing the video card in your computer. They just strip out all the coding and put the very simple algorithm in. You could teach a kid how to do it."

David McCallen, a deputy director for national security at Livermore who developed the idea with Wattenburg, said the concept is simple and should be put through rigorous field testing.

"What it needs is vetting with real testing," McCallen said Saturday. "This is important stuff so you want to do very thorough testing."

TSA official Kimball said the agency is working on development of scanner technology that would reduce the image to a "generic icon, a generic stick figure" that would still reveal potentially dangerous items."

"It isn't up to the standard we would like, but it's getting close," Kimball said.

Wattenburg is semi-retired and works as a consultant to Livermore and several major government contractors. Familiar with the federal bureaucracy, he said he doubts the TSA will take the simplest course of action.

"They are so far down the road in buying all the equipment that they're too embarrassed to reverse course," he said. "Their very sophisticated equipment can be made to do this."

halseya@washpost.com Staff writer Derek Kravitz contributed to this report

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