Airport Scanners Transform Bodies Into Stick Figures
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
We're going now to the security line at your local airport. The Transportation Security Administration said today that pilots will no longer be subject to scanning or pat-downs. There may be some relief for passengers, too, at least for those who say the scanners that produce virtual nude pictures violate their privacy.
NPR's Tovia Smith reports on new software that would change that and may soon be tested at Boston's Logan Airport.
TOVIA SMITH: Under the new system, scanners would still take a naked picture of your body but only the computer would get to see it. The image would be immediately transformed into a kind of cartoon outline before any human eyes could check you out.
Mr. JOHN PISTOLE (Administrator, Transportation Security Administration): It's basically a stick figure. Yeah, it's either a stick figure or a blob. So, yeah. But...
SMITH: That's TSA chief John Pistole explaining to Congress this week how the new software would highlight problem areas on those stick figures - like pushpins on a map.
Mr. PISTOLE: With the automated target recognition, it will show a box, for example, in the area of the body where there is an anomaly.
Unidentified Man: Right...
SMITH: Officials say the technology is not quite ripe yet. Computers are still not as good at analyzing body scans as humans are, but they're getting there -much to the delight of some passengers at Logan like Judy Panagotopulous from Massachusetts and frequent flyer Magali Iglesias from New York.
Ms. JUDY PANAGOTOPULOUS: It's nicer courtesy to people, I think. It does make it easier to swallow.
Ms. MAGALI IGLESIAS: It is an improvement. Yeah, I think they are listening to the people complaining.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SMITH: Security expert and Logan consultant Rafi Ron agrees. He says the stick-figure software strikes the right balance between security needs and privacy concerns.
Mr. RAFI RON (Security Expert, Aviation and Transportation): The government is showing that it is trying to satisfy the concerns, and I think it's a very positive approach. Because in the past, we didn't always see that.
SMITH: But others are skeptical.
MARC ROTENBERG (President, EPIC): This is literally window dressing.
SMITH: Marc Rotenberg is president of EPIC, the advocacy group that's filed a federal suit to stop the scans. He says even the filtering software doesn't solve the problem since the TSA would still be taking virtual nude pictures of passengers.
Mr. ROTENBERG: The TSA can apply the filters. It can disable the stick-figure capability. I mean, anything you can turn on, you can turn off. That's obvious.
(Soundbite of machinery)
SMITH: Back at Logan, many travelers going through security like Maritza Vargas and Aaron Rice from Leominster, Massachusetts, have little sympathy for those who feel violated by the body scans.
Ms. MARITZA VARGAS: This is the rule, do it. And if you don't want to do it, there's a bus station I'm sure down the street, a train station down the street - take those. Otherwise, let us look at your naked body. Who cares? Safety is more important.
Mr. AARON RICE: Exactly, we all have the same parts. So after you've seen one, you've seen them all.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SMITH: To some security experts, the tensions around privacy point to a larger problem with airline security - that is that all passengers get the same maximum level of scrutiny.
Rafi Ron says there would be fewer objections and better security if officials increased scrutiny of high-risk travelers and lightened up on the rest.
Mr. RON: Rather than waste our resources on most of the public by holding to idea that one size fit all kind of strategy, we actually can afford to actually elevate the level of search - even way beyond what the body scanners are doing.
SMITH: Ron says security officials can no longer avoid profiling travelers, even though that will surely bring the same heated protests as body scans.
Tovia Smith NPR News, Boston.
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