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A volunteer stands inside a "millimeter wave" scanner during a demonstration at the Transportation Security Administration's Systems Integration Facility at Ronald Reagan National Airport December 30, 2009 in Arlington, Virginia.

Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

TSA pulls 'peepshow' scanners

  • Article by: Gary A. Warner
  • Orange County Register
  • February 1, 2013 - 1:42 PM

The “peepshow” scanners that have caused an uproar at airports are finally getting the heave-ho.

It took more than two years of passenger complaints, but the Transportation Security Administration says it is pulling the plug on the Rapiscan backscatter scanner. The move was made because the manufacturer did not meet a deadline to come up with new software that would create less revealing images. In all, 174 machines at 30 airports will be removed.

The machines, introduced in 2010, look like two large metallic bookcases. Travelers are instructed to step between them and put their hands over their head (“Like a cheerleader, give me an O!” is a common joke) and hold still while a scanner takes an image of your body.

Meant to find metallic objects like guns and synthetic items like plastic explosives, the machines were rejected by much of the traveling public because of the explicitly detailed image that they created for TSA officers to see.

The security agency wrestled with the backlash, ensuring that the monitor images could only be seen in a secure room and that the images could not be saved or disseminated. Young children were exempted from the machines.

But that didn’t satisfy many passengers, who chose to opt out of the machines, which would require a body search by TSA staff — a method that generated its own set of complaints. The machines, meant to speed up security lines, often had the opposite effect. Complaints piled in to Congress, which ordered that the machines be fixed or removed by June.

One of two companies, L-3 Communications, was able to come up with new software for its millimeter wave machines. These now show a cartoon-like outline of a body. The L-3 machines are the ones that look like a large glass tube. The Associated Press reported that the TSA has 669 of these machines and plans to buy another 60.

But Rapiscan could not create new software for its backscatter machines and threw in the towel this month. The TSA canceled its contract with the company.

The TSA confirmed in the fall that the backscatter machines had been shut down at seven major airports (Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport does not have any of the backscatter machines). That move will now be expanded to the rest of the country’s airports.

The 250 Rapiscan machines the TSA owns will not be junked but transferred to other, as yet undetermined, federal agencies to be used in security screening.

© 2014 Star Tribune