Naked body scanners and Automated Target Recognition: A comeback for privacy?

Science, technology, and life.
July 21 2011 7:50 AM

Fully Digital Penetration

The creepiest thing about naked body scanners is being removed: their human operators.

Scanner images from TSA.gov.
Current scanner images (left) and new automated images (right).

Just in time for a congressional budget-cutting deal, the government has found a way to eliminate a whole class of federal employees: the people who stare at your naked body in airports.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Yesterday the Transportation Security Administration announced the good news: Airport scanners will no longer show an image of your naked body to a TSA officer in a nearby room. Instead, the scanners "will auto-detect items that could pose a potential threat" and will depict the locations of these items "on a generic, computer-generated outline of a person." You can preview the generic outline on TSA's Web site.

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The new breast-, buttock-, and scrotum-free cartoon image is so family-friendly that TSA will show it on a monitor right next to you as you're scanned. "Passengers are able to view the same outline that the TSA officer sees," says the TSA press release. No more secrets.

In fact, unless you're wearing something that triggers the scanner's threat detection alert, the monitor won't even show a cartoon image. As TSA's online spokesman, Blogger Bob, demonstrates, it'll just show the word "OK."

Pause for a moment and think about that. The monitor next to you, which supposedly eliminates secrecy by showing you what the TSA officer sees, will show you nothing. And yet, your naked body has just been scanned. So the monitor isn't showing you what TSA has seen. It's showing you what the TSA officer is seeing. And those two things are now different, thanks to the new "Automated Target Recognition" software. The job of scrutinizing your naked body has been taken away from human beings and reassigned to computers.

The original version of privacy, before airport scanners, was that nobody could see you naked as long as you wore clothes. When TSA introduced scanners, that understanding of privacy was replaced by a new version based on anonymity: One TSA officer could see the contours of your naked body, and another could see your face, but neither officer could connect the two. Now comes a third version of privacy, based on automation: Your naked body will be carefully scrutinized, but only by a machine. Unless, that is, you trigger the scanner's detection alert, in which case the part of your body where the threat was detected "will require additional screening" by a TSA officer, possibly including a pat-down.

Does the automation of scan analysis eliminate your discomfort? If a tree falls in the forest, and nobody hears it, does it make a sound? If you're scanned through your clothes, and no human being is there to view the image, have you been rendered naked?

I'd say no. I'd say Automated Target Recognition is the end of naked scanning. And this is a big deal, because TSA didn't have to do it. Last week, a U.S. appeals court upheld the constitutionality of full-body airport scans. For years, critics, including me, have noted a steady trajectory of increasingly invasive policies: scans, pat-downs, and a general pattern of turning optional screening procedures into mandatory screening procedures. Now, for the first time, TSA seems to be backing off.

Why? Because Big Brother cares about you. "TSA Takes Next Steps to Further Enhance Passenger Privacy," says the headline on the government's press release.  "We are always looking for new technology and procedures that will both enhance security while strengthening privacy protections," explains Blogger Bob. "That's why we worked with [partners] to develop the software."

Really? That isn't quite what Bob said a year ago, when he discussed Automated Target Recognition on the TSA blog. "We're very interested in this next generation software," he reported at the time. It would be "a win for passengers who have voiced concerns over privacy." And from TSA's standpoint, he added, "It would be a win for us since we won't have to staff as many officers."

In February, when TSA began to field-test the software, Bob repeated that the agency would "no longer have to staff an officer in a separate room." But now that the software is going nationwide, Bob has tweaked his language: TSA will "no longer have to place an officer in a separate room to view the images." The word "staff" has been removed, and the phrase "to view the images" has been added, so that the original labor-saving rationale now looks like a privacy rationale.

I'm glad TSA is automating its analysis of body scans. The new policy restores a measure of dignity and shows that the encroachment of the security state isn't inexorable. But let's not pretend TSA would have done this just for privacy. It did it to save money.

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