New full-body scanner software displays only avatars, not real images

A software upgrade for airport scanners seems to offer a relatively simple fix to a thorny problem that has concerned privacy advocates and vexed security officials.
Written by Joe McKendrick, Contributing Writer

Everyone wants as much security as possible when flying, but many passengers have been up in arms at the prospect of full-body scanners invading their privacy from head to toe and everywhere in between.

In fact, in April, a group called the Electronic Privacy Information Center sued the government and Department of Homeland Security in an effort to stop the installation of full-body scanners at airports. About 51 US airports now use the devices.

The Transportation Security Administration and body-scanner vendors seem to have come up with a workaround, revealing a new software fix that may take a lot of the awkwardness out of having security personnel viewing your private parts. Instead of seeing an X-ray of one's exposed body, they will only be viewing an avatar-like figure on screen, with alerts to suspicious carry-ons.

Bloomberg News reports that L-3 Communications Holdings Inc. and OSI Systems Inc.’s Rapiscan, makers of the scanners for US airports, "are delivering software upgrades that show a generic figure rather than an actual image of a passenger’s body parts. The new display would mark sections of a person’s body that need to be checked."

The images shown on this page, from L3, show very generic representations of human figures, in which software senses and alerts security personnel to suspicious carry-ons. Rapiscan's human figures are even more "cartoonish" looking (see illustration on the the Bloomberg site). Peter Kant, a Rapiscan executive vice president, said in an interview that the software fix will be far less intrusive than current full-body scanning technologies:

"The revisions certainly address most of the privacy concerns. Every passenger will generate an avatar that looks like a guy wearing a baseball cap."

Bloomberg reports that the images will also be screen by TSA personnel in separate rooms, so they would not be able to associate the images directly with the screened passengers. The TSA also recently issued a denial that it stores images made of passengers at checkpoints.

The software upgrade seems like a relatively simple fix to a thorny problem that has been vexing security officials and been of great concern to privacy advocates. The question is, does it go far enough in protecting privacy?

(Photo: L3 Communications)

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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