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TSA hopes scanner upgrades reduce privacy worries

A software upgrade to address privacy concerns will be rolled out more broadly but is unlikely to eliminate health and other concerns related to so-called pornoscanners.

The Transportation Security Agency is planning to accelerate adoption of software it says will help "enhance passenger privacy" for its controversial full-body scanners.

TSA chief John Pistole said yesterday that the software, which shows only generic body outlines rather than actual images, soon will be installed on all full-body scanners that use millimeter wave technology. Testing on body scanners that use backscatter X-ray technology will begin this fall.

The announcement comes after TSA said in February that it would begin testing the software upgrades on scanners in Las Vegas, Atlanta, and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. (See related CNET Q&A with TSA's official spokes-blogger.)

The upgrade--TSA calls it "auto-detecting potential threat items and indicating their location on a generic outline of a person"--is unlikely to end the debate over the controversial technology, which led to a near-revolt among air travelers last fall. One cause of the backlash was TSA's decision to offer travelers this unpalatable choice: go through the so-called pornoscanners, or experience a police-style pat down that could include genitals.

Biochemists have raised health concerns about backscatter scanners that use X-rays, saying that no independent safety data exists, a concern that modifications to the display technology won't assuage. And TSA has acknowledged that it requires all airport body scanners it purchases to be able to store and transmit images for "testing, training, and evaluation purposes."

Last week, a federal appeals court rejected a constitutional challenge to the use of the scanners but said TSA adopted them without following proper procedures.