The TSA appears to be following through on promises to deal more effectively with well-publicized (and sometimes hysterically publicized) concerns many people have about the "strip search" aspects of those whole-body imagers that the agency has been busily installing at airport checkpoints.
The TSA said today that it is installing major software upgrades on one type of the machines (the ones that use millimeter-wave technology), that will "enhance privacy by eliminating passenger-specific images" that a screener looks at.
Of the whole-body imaging machines now in use at 78 airports, about half use the millimeter wave technology, which works on radio waves. The others are so-called backscatter machines, which use X-ray technology.
The TSA said it's working on developing similar software upgrades for the backscatter machines. But the millimeter-wave machine upgrades have already been tested at the Reagan National, Atlanta and Las Vegas airports, and are being rolled out "in the coming months," the agency says.
How this works, according to the TSA:
Rather than generating a graphic naked-body image of the person being scanned, the machines, once they're upgraded, will detect any anomalous mass or item in a person's clothes or on the body -- as both types of machine do now.
But if nothing is detected on the upgraded machines, an "OK" appears on the monitor screen, with no body image produced at all. If something is detected, the screen shows a generic body outline that indicates the location of the object or objects. As is the case now, that will then require a physical patdown to "resolve the issue."
Eliminating the specific body image of the person being screened eliminates the need, driven by privacy concerns, to have a separate screener examine the images in a remote location and communicate with the screener at the checkpoint about what the image shows. Instead, both passenger and screener alike will see the image on the screen at the checkpoint.
Whole body imaging machines are now being used at checkpoints in 78 airports. Right now, 488 machines are in use at lanes at those airports, and the TSA is rolling more out, with plans to have them eventually entirely replace then old magnetometers at 2,000 total checkpoints in the roughly 450 commercial airports.
The magnetometers detect only metallic objects. While the whole-body imagers don't detect metal, per se, they show any object or mass on the body. They're being put in place basically to enhance the ability to detect not just metallic weapons but also mass that indicates the possibility of concealed non-metallic explosive material.
Here's the TSA's list of the airports where whole-body imaging machines, which the TSA now calls Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) machines, are being used.