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TSA to roll out less revealing scanner

Software replaces detailed image with silhouette

Scanner images caused a public uproar last year, but new software being installed on millimeter wave machines shows a silhouette of the person being scanned. Here, passengers went through security at Logan Airport in August 2010. Scanner images caused a public uproar last year, but new software being installed on millimeter wave machines shows a silhouette of the person being scanned. Here, passengers went through security at Logan Airport in August 2010. (David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File 2010)
By Ashley Halsey III
The Washington Post / July 21, 2011

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WASHINGTON - Those blurry but revealing airport body scanner images that caused a public uproar last year are being replaced by a gray, cookie-cutter image of the human form.

After six months of testing at three airports, including Reagan National, the Transportation Security Administration said yesterday that the new software would be installed on 241 units at 41 airports that use millimeter wave technology.

Software for an equal number of units that use backscatter technology is still being developed, the TSA said. Both work by bouncing X-rays or radio waves off skin or concealed objects.

Instead of the original full-body images, the new software being installed on millimeter wave machines shows a silhouette of the person being scanned on a screen about the size of a laptop computer that is attached to the scanning booth.

If a passenger is cleared by the scan, the screen flashes green with an “OK.’’ If suspicious items are detected, they appear as little boxes outlined in red, showing their location on generic front and back silhouettes on the screen.

Passengers who trigger an alert, and anyone who refuses to go through the scanners, will receive the rigorous frisking that has drawn sharp objections.

“This software upgrade enables us to continue providing a high level of security through advanced imaging technology screening, while improving the passenger experience at checkpoints,’’ TSA administrator John S. Pistole said.

Use of the scanners last year 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.

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.

Another furor arose over the rigorous pat-downs performed on those who refused to go through the scanners or who appeared to be carrying contraband. A California man became the face of the opposition after he threatened a San Diego TSA agent with arrest if “you touch my junk’’ during a pat-down.