TSA Chief Praises ‘Advanced Imaging’ to Combat Terrorism

John Pistole touted AIT as a “safe and reliable” screening technology.
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The top U.S. transportation security official told Congress the “best defense” against terrorism is a “layered security approach that utilizes a range of measures both seen and unseen,” including “advanced imaging technology” (AIT) to screen air passengers and cargo.

On Feb. 10, 2011, John Pistole, the administrator of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) told the House transportation subcommittee that “after analyzing the latest intelligence and studying available technologies and other processes, TSA determined that AIT is the most effective method to detect both metallic and non-metallic threat items concealed on passengers while maintaining efficient checkpoint screening operations.”

AIT represents the very latest in passenger screening technological advancement and addresses a broad range of threats, Pistole said. TSA “tested and piloted” the use of AIT at several airports around the country prior to the attempted attack on a passenger airliner in December 2009 (when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to detonate plastic explosives hidden in his underwear while on board Northwest Airline Flight 2544). As a result of that attempted attack, TSA was able to accelerate deployment of AIT, which enable TSA to quickly and effectively detect metallic and non-metallic threats Pistole added.

Pistole touts AIT as a “safe and reliable” screening technology. “AIT machines are safe, efficient, and have built-in safeguards to protect passenger privacy,” he said. TSA requires its technology to comply with consensus-based scientific safety standards administered by the Health Physics Society and accredited by the American National Standards Institute, he said.

In addition, the radiation dose from backscatter AIT machines have been affirmed as complying with established standards for safety by the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Pistole said. “The energy projected by these units is a fraction of other commercially approved radio frequency devices, such as cell phones, two-way radios, and blue tooth devices,” he said.

TSA is also committed to protecting passenger privacy, therefore AIT machines deployed at airports do not store or print passenger images, and images are maintained on the monitor only for as long as it takes to resolve any anomalies, Pistole said. Images from TSA screening operations have not been and are not retained, and the TSA officer reviewing the image is unable to see the individual undergoing screening, and the officer screening the passenger cannot see the image, he said, adding, “The image is completely disassociated with the passenger.”

Furthermore, AIT machines do not produce photographic quality images that would permit recognition of the person screened. TSA also applies facial blurs to both the millimeter wave and backscatter technologies.

While TSA is deploying AIT machines to U.S. airports, the agency is also “exploring enhancements to this technology to further address privacy issues,” he said. To that end, TSA is field testing auto-detection software, referred to as “automatic target recognition” (ATR), which enhances passenger privacy by eliminating passenger-specific images and instead highlights the area with a detected anomaly on a generic outline of a person, he said.

As with current AIT software, ATR-enabled units deployed at airports are not capable of storing or printing the generic image. This software eliminates the need for a remotely located TSA officer to view passenger images in a separate room, because no actual image of the passenger is produced, reducing associated staffing and construction costs, he said.

ATR software represents a substantial step forward in addressing passenger privacy concerns, while maintaining TSA established standards for detection, he said. TSA plans to continually update and test enhanced versions of the software in order to ensure technology with the highest detection standards is in use, he adds.

The TSA is also taking aggressive action to improve the security of air cargo throughout the global air cargo network. In response to the October 2010 attempted bombings of cargo aircraft bound for the United States (in which explosives were hidden in printer-toner cartridges), TSA has issued security requirements restricting the transport of printer and toner cartridges; prohibiting elevated risk cargo from transport on passenger aircraft; requiring other cargo to undergo screening; and establishing requirements for handling international mail.

In January 2011, TSA issued a proposed air carrier security program change to increase security measures for air cargo, most notably, to require 100 percent screening of inbound international cargo transported on passenger aircraft by December 31, 2011, Pistole said. TSA expects to finalize the programs in Spring 2011 after evaluating industry comments.

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