House curbs 'virtual strip searches' at airports

Republican congressman's amendment curbing the use of X-ray and millimeter wave passenger body-scanning is approved, a blow to the TSA's plans for broader use of the controversial technique.

WASHINGTON--The Transportation Security Agency's plans to use X-rays to peek under air travelers' clothes may soon be shelved.

In a 310-118 vote on Thursday, the U.S. House of Representatives approved legislation that curbs the growing use of what critics call "virtual strip searches" at airport checkpoints.

Privacy groups say that the low-energy backscatter X-rays allow "a highly realistic image to be reconstructed... of the traveler's nude form" that's "detailed enough to show genitalia." The TSA, on the other hand, says it has made improvements to its scanning technology including a "privacy algorithm" that will provide the operator with vaguer outlines of body parts. (See related CBS News video.)

The House vote attached an amendment drafted by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, to a broader TSA bill.

TSA's X-ray backscatter scanning with "privacy filter," front view TSA.gov

Chaffetz's amendment says that whole body imaging "may not be used" as the primary method of passenger screening, and that passengers have the right to refuse it and "shall be offered a pat-down search" as an alternative. It also prohibits the storage or transmission of the whole-body images after they're no longer necessary for screening.

"Whole-body imaging is exactly what it says; it allows TSA employees to conduct the equivalent of a strip search," Chaffetz said in a statement after the vote. "Nobody needs to see my wife and kids naked to secure an airplane."

Chaffetz had first introduced the measure as a standalone bill in April. His original bill made it a federal crime for a TSA screener to share or copy a passenger image; that penalty vanished in the final version attached as an amendment.

Backscatter X-rays are relatively low-power and are believed to be safe even for frequent flyers. One manufacturer, Rapiscan Systems, boasts that its equipment can detect "explosives, narcotics, ceramic weapons" such as ceramic knives that traditional metal detectors can't. (A competing technology is called millimeter wave.)

On May 31, a coalition of advocacy groups including the ACLU, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, Gun Owners of America, and the Consumer Federation of America sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano asking her to "suspend the program until the privacy and security risks are fully evaluated."

TSA's "millimeter wave" technology TSA.gov

TSA says that it's currently using millimeter wave technology at 19 U.S. airports, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta, and Washington Reagan National.

During the Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference on Tuesday in Washington, D.C., Peter Pietra, the TSA's director for privacy policy and compliance, defended full-body scanning technology. (See CNET's 2006 interview with Pietra.)

"It's much better for me than going through a magnetometer," Pietra said. There's "an awful lot of work that's gone into it." Any suggestions on how to improve the privacy of the screening process, he said, could be sent to tsaprivacy@dhs.gov.

On Thursday, the full House approved the Transportation Security Administration Authorization Act by a vote of 397 to 25. Now the bill heads to the Senate, which could choose to preserve or strip out the privacy amendments.

 

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