July 25, 2011
The Transportation Security Administration has finally faced the naked truth. After the agency’s advanced imaging technology (AIT) airport scanners stirred controversy by exposing too much of a passenger’s human form, the TSA will switch to new software that makes the images less realistic.
Screening agents—who had been isolated in a remote closet to view the revealing images but will now return to face the public—will see a simplified stick figure, or what the TSA prefers to call “a generic outline.” New automated target recognition software also will show a generalized outline of any suspicious objects. Passengers will earn a simple OK and walk on, or be set aside for an invasive search.
If the new software is a success, the TSA says it will also convert its backscatter machines, although it’s not clear whether “success” is defined as catching more bad guys or cutting the number of complaints about privacy.
The TSA is still reeling from revelations in a Government Accountability Office report this spring that it repeatedly failed to SPOT terrorists—its acronym for “Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques.” At least six suspected terrorists strolled by airport agents using SPOT to flag potential threats by watching for certain behaviors. The GAO concluded that TSA behavior detection officers (BDOs, of course) had been placed nationwide with no “scientifically valid basis” for the SPOT method.
In recent weeks the TSA has added training and a new database. Part of BDO training now is to watch video of real subjects who slipped through screening and were later charged or pleaded guilty to an offense.
“Such recordings could provide insights about behaviors that may be common among terrorists or could demonstrate that terrorists do not generally display any identifying behaviors,” said the GAO.