Airport Scanners Show Contraband, Not Naked Images

The ProVision ATD system uses radio waves to detect contraband and not ionizing radiation or X-rays.
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The U.S Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is testing a passenger scanning system that can alert security personnel to the presence of contraband—including explosive devices—on a person, but without producing an unclothed image of a person’s body, says the company producing the scanner.

L-3 Security & Detection Systems—of Woburn, Mass.—says its "ProVision ATD," (or "automatic threat detection") system may provide a solution to the privacy and safety controversy surrounding passenger screening at U.S. airports.

Unlike the backscatter imaging devices that provide revealing body images and which have raised concerns about exposure to radiation, the ProVision ATD system uses radio waves to detect contraband and not ionizing radiation or X-rays, L-3 says in a written statement.

In addition, the ATD projects the images collected from a person onto a generic mannequin figure and not onto an image of the person's body. If the mannequin image indicates the possible presence of contraband on a passenger, security personnel are alerted and can take the necessary action, the company says.

ProVision’s ATDs range in price from $40,000 to $150,000, and in May 2010 TSA ordered 200 of the less-advanced ProVision systems to screen passengers at U.S. airports. Those units do not have the "automatic threat detection" capability that can highlight parts of the body without generating actual images. But TSA has contracted with L-3 to develop software upgrades that could provide that capability for the agency’s 200 units.

The ATD system is "the next generation" of scanning technology, TSA Administrator John Pistole said Nov. 17 during an appearance before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. However, TSA is concerned about “a high rate of false positives” produced by the scanners, resulting in more passengers have to endure the controversial “pat downs,” but that is being worked on, he said.

Despite the problems, the scanners have detected more than 130 prohibited, illegal or dangerous items, while more than 99 percent of airline passengers choosing the ATD imaging technology over alternative screening methods, according to TSA.