TSA Partially Rolls Back Invasive Airport Scanner Imaging

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced today they would alter body scanning technology at airports to eliminate full-body scans of individual passengers.  Instead, future scans will identify the location of suspicious items on a generic human outline.

The recent move to eliminate virtual strip searches, known as Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT), comes despite such software having long been available to the TSA. Manufacturers of the body scanners presented it to TSA in August of last year, when the systems were still rolling out.  At the time, there were only 194 backscatter machines in use at airports, a number that climbed to 385 by November and reaches 488 today. Despite being unveiled last August, it took until February before the TSA even began testing the new technology.

Most notably, the announcement by TSA comes just five days after a Federal Court of Appeals ruling that the agency violated the Administrative Procedure Act and must work through a public comment and rulemaking period, something the agency failed to undertake before placing scanners at airports.  The move by TSA is a likely attempt to head off a period of media attention and strong public opposition to individual-specific images surrounding the comment proceedings.

The case, brought by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), also centered on whether TSA scanners violated the Fourth Amendment and other federal statutes. However, such claims were largely dismissed.  The court ruled the screenings constitute an "administrative search," permissible under the Fourth Amendment to "protect the public from a terrorist attack."  However, another challenge that scanners violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act were dismissed only for lack of standing.  This could leave room for future court challenges, yet the TSA's switch to generic imaging may diminish the success of a petition.

Whether motivated by federal court ruling, public backlash, or a genuine desire to upgrade technology against invasive imaging, the switch is a win for passengers everywhere.  A special thanks to EPIC for bringing the case.