The TSA’s New Scanners Spot Bombs, Not Dongs

Right now, you look something like this or this to the TSA’s naked body scanners. But soon, you’ll look more like a chalk outline, potential threats pinpointed on a generic sketch of a human form. No buns, just guns.

Starting today at Atlanta’s Hartsfield, Las Vegas’s McCarren and DC’s Ronald Reagan airports, the TSA is testing new software for the body scanners that’ll show a “generic outline” of the person being scanned – one that looks the same for every single passenger. If you’re all kosher, a giant OK will appear on the monitor. If a “threat” is detected, it’ll show up wherever it’s located on the outline. Right now, the TSA is testing the new software on millimeter wave scanners, with plans to expand them to backscatter machines later. (Easy way to tell the difference: The hulking machines marked “Pro Vision” are millimeter wave scanners.)

While the TSA is pitching the new software as privacy-enhancing – no doubt, it no longer displays dongs – it’s also more economical. Because the images no longer display passengers’ individual naked bodies, there’s no longer a separate screening room where a TSA agent evaluates the images. Which means they can put more people through the expedited scanning process. (I suspect this incentive is nearly as strong as the response to the public outcry about feeling exposed, since I’ve personally seen a TSA manager shut down a scanner line because it was taking too long to shove people through.)

And while we’re all for more security and less dong, is there a potential trade-off here? When I talked to RAND Corporation Senior Advisor and security expert Brian Jenkins a couple of months ago, right when the body scanner hysteria started, he said he was opposed to the deployment of body scanners as a reaction the “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, because he did “not think a body scanner would have necessary picked up [the]bomb given the quantity, and how it was concealed”. And “especially not with the scanners deployed that blur the genital area”. Is effectively blurring the entire body still an effective security measure then? We’ll see.

Maybe the new software is really incredible and totally detects all threats while it renders every passenger into an identical outline. But even if it doesn’t, there has been real progress in aviation security, Jenkins said. “We have obliged terrorists to build smaller devices, use different types of detonating systems, as opposed to commercial detonating caps, which are detectable. We have increased their operational difficulties. Their devices have a higher probability of not working and the quantities are so small, they would probably not lead to a catastrophic hull loss.”

So! Enjoy your unexposed privates the next you stroll through a body scanner. You’re probably not any less safe than you were before.

Image modified from TSA Pictures

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