Airport Body Scanners: The Role of Advanced Imaging Technology in Airline Passenger Screening

Responding to the need to reliably detect explosives, bomb-making components, and other potential security threats concealed by airline passengers, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has focused on the deployment of whole body scanners as a core element of its strategy for airport checkpoint screening. TSA has deployed about 700 of these scanners, known as whole body imagers (WBI) or advanced imaging technology (AIT), at airports throughout the United States, and plans to have 1,800 in place by the end of FY2014. AIT systems include two technologies: millimeter wave systems and X-ray backscatter systems. AIT directly addresses specific recommendations and mandates to improve the detection of explosives on passengers. However, the deployment of these systems has generated a number of concerns. Although polling data indicate that the American public generally accepts the use of body scanners for passenger screening, various stakeholders have expressed concerns over privacy, potential health risks, and delays in getting through security. Concerns have also been raised regarding screening individuals with special needs, the overall effectiveness of current technology, screener staffing requirements, and TSA’s deployment strategy. While TSA voluntarily applies a number of privacy measures (such as viewing AIT images remotely and providing alternative pat-down screenings on request), U.S. law does not specifically require these actions. Beyond these existing procedural measures to protect privacy, TSA is working toward the eventual elimination of human image viewers, replacing them with automated target recognition (ATR) technology to detect potential threats. If ATR eliminates the need for most image viewers, as expected, this could reduce TSA staffing requirements. However, this depends to an extent on the alarm rate for ATR, since TSA procedures require alarms to be resolved by labor-intensive pat-down searches. ATR is currently being deployed on all newly acquired millimeter wave systems and is being retrofitted into already deployed millimeter wave systems. It has not been announced whether a similar system will be implemented for X-ray backscatter imagers. The availability of ATR on millimeter wave units, coupled with continued public perceptions of potential health concerns associated with X-ray backscatter systems, appear to be key factors influencing TSA’s approach to focus future acquisitions and deployments on millimeter wave systems. Bills under consideration in the 112th Congress, including the Aircraft Passenger Whole-Body Imaging Limitations Act of 2011 (H.R. 1279) and the Checkpoint Images Protection Act of 2011 (H.R. 685), address privacy and health safety concerns. Additionally, the Transportation Security Administration Authorization Act of 2011 (H.R. 3011) contains a provision that would require all deployed AIT systems to have ATR capabilities and any image retention capabilities to be disabled. Lastly, the Restoring Integrity and Good-Heartedness in Traveler Screening Act, or the “RIGHTS Act” (S. 2207), would address concerns over the processing of passenger complaints regarding TSA procedures and improve assistance to passengers needing special accommodations at screening checkpoints.


  • English

Media Info

  • Media Type: Digital/other
  • Features: Figures;
  • Pagination: 15p

Subject/Index Terms

Filing Info

  • Accession Number: 01704390
  • Record Type: Publication
  • Report/Paper Numbers: R42750
  • Files: TRIS
  • Created Date: May 3 2019 1:51PM