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TSA debuts less-revealing software for airport scanners

In a demonstration of new software to screen airline passengers, questionable spots are marked by boxes on generic body outlines.
In a demonstration of new software to screen airline passengers, questionable spots are marked by boxes on generic body outlines. (Mark Gail)

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According to the TSA, the new software is being tested on millimeter wave machines, but the agency plans to test similar software on backscatter units.

"It's sort of like developing software for an Apple computer and a PC," TSA spokesman Nick Kimball said. "The software has to be different."

Currently, 239 millimeter machines are in operation at 40 airports; 247 backscatter models are in use at 38 airports.

Although this could become the first wide-scale application in the United States that marries scanner technology with software that produces a less-than-graphic image, the concept is not new.

Similar scanning software has been used at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam, but the TSA said it didn't meet U.S. standards.

Willard "Bill" Wattenburg, a former nuclear weapons designer at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, was rebuffed four years ago when he offered a software program to distort scanner images so they would reveal dangerous objects but not body contours.

"We knew this was going to create a controversy the minute we first heard that they planned to use scanners," Wattenburg said.

Use of the scanners infuriated a vocal minority of Americans who pressured the Obama administration and Congress to find a less-intrusive method for trying to ensure air safety. But most people surveyed last fall - 81 percent in a CBS poll and nearly two-thirds in a Washington Post-ABC News poll - said they supported their use.

Obama asked Pistole whether a less-intrusive approach could be developed. Pistole was quizzed on Capitol Hill but remained stalwart, insisting that the scanners are necessary in the defense against inventive terrorists obsessed with attacking aviation.

Further indignation arose over the rigorous pat-downs performed on those who refused to go through the scanners or who appeared to be carrying contraband, with one House member telling Pistole he wouldn't want his wife to be subjected to that.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that if faced with the choice, she would opt for the pat-down rather than the scanner because she understands "how difficult it is and how offensive it must be for the people who are going through it."

A California man became an instant folk hero last year after he threatened a San Diego TSA agent with arrest if "you touch my junk" during a pat-down.

Despite drawing advance attention, a protest planned for Thanksgiving weekend that organizers had hoped would draw attention to privacy issues fizzled.


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