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Optical Design & Engineering

Makeover for Airport Body Scanners?

SPIE Newsroom
8 September 2010

SPIE Corporate Member L-3 Communications Holdings, which makes scanners for airport security lines, is delivering software upgrades in the United States that may ease passengers' privacy concerns about the so-called "naked" cameras that have recently been installed in airports in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere. The body scanners see through clothing and reveal clear outlines of passengers' anatomies.

L-3 Communications and OSI Systems Inc.'s Rapiscan are delivering the upgrades that show a generic figure rather than an actual image of a passenger's body parts. The new display would mark sections of a person's body that need to be checked.

The revisions "certainly address most of the privacy concerns," Peter Kant, a Rapiscan executive vice president, said in an interview. Every passenger will generate an avatar that "looks like a guy wearing a baseball cap," he said.

The U.S. Transportation Security Administration aims to add the software to the machines, which sparked complaints, as more airports get the scanners. As of 27 August, 194 of the devices were in use at 51 U.S. airports.

"TSA continues to explore additional privacy protections for imaging technology," Greg Soule, a spokesman for the security agency, said in an e-mail.

SPIE Professional image of scan taken by IPHT terahertz cameraAn alternative system to the controversial body scanners using a passive terahertz security camera was the subject of a recent article in SPIE Professional magazine. Researchers at the Institute of Photonic Technology Jena in Germany see this approach as a promising solution to worries about health effects as well as privacy concerns.

The scientific challenge of using a passive imaging technology is to achieve enough sensitivity in the detector to identify weapons and other hidden hazardous materials. The THz camera developed at IPHT is able to record images with a frame rate of up to 10 Hz. That is close to video but not sufficient to image a person passing the camera at a walking pace without motion blurring. For that reason, the forthcoming fourth-generation camera will use a receiver with 50 detectors to achieve full video rate at 25 Hz.