In a rare victory, privacy rights advocates won their long-fought battle against the Transportation Security Administration over the use of x-ray imaging scanners at airports across America. As announced today, the scanners will be completely removed from airports by June 2013. But don’t be surprised if you see them again soon. The corporation that makes them insists that plenty of government agencies can’t wait to get their hands on them.
Congress to the rescue
In another rare episode, it was Congress that set the ball in motion for the airport scanners to be removed. Hundreds of thousands of people complained that their privacy was being invaded by the machines because they generated a near photo-like, naked image of each person. Fewer in number, but just as against the use of the x-ray scanners, health-conscious Americans were also outraged that people were being exposed to the radiation of an x-ray each time they boarded a plane.
In November 2011, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee forced TSA Administrator John S. Pistole to conduct an independent study on the effects of ‘backscatter Advanced Imaging Technology’ – the tech name for the naked x-ray airport scanners. Up to that point, and aside from millions of Americans outraged over indecent images of themselves on airport computer monitors, health professionals had concerns about the safety of the machines. The TSA’s Pistole promised to let the National Academy of Sciences study the health effects of the scanners.
Falsified test data
One year later, the TSA delivered what is termed a ‘show cause’ letter to the company that makes the x-ray scanners – OSI Systems and its subsidiary Rapiscan. According to the letter, the federal agency is investigating allegations that it falsified test data. The company immediately denied the accusations.
While the TSA and the National Academy of Sciences studied the health effects of OSI Systems’ x-ray scanners, the corporation was frantically spending $2.7 million to develop new software that limited the scanners’ images to generic, silhouette-style graphics, instead of the picture quality images currently being generated in US airports. The company was given a June 2013 deadline to make the change or be forced to remove their scanners from the nation’s airports. They announced this week they could not meet that deadline.
As reported by Associated Press, Wall Street isn’t taking the news as a victory for civil rights and privacy advocates. Instead, financial analysts are seeing the announcement as a victory for OSI Systems in its endeavor to avoid criminal or civil charges relating to its alleged falsification of test data on the x-ray scanners. Never was the loss of a multi-million dollar government contract more celebrated in the corporate world. Shares of OSI Systems soared 3.5% on the news today. By giving up the lucrative contract, it’s believed that Congress and the TSA will cease their investigation of the company.
Another reason OSI Systems is celebrating today is because the company knows there is strong demand for their naked x-ray scanners at government facilities across the country. Illustrating that belief, the company’s CFO Alan Edrick announced that the $2.7 million write-off for its unsuccessful work to blur the scanners’ images would also include the good will act of relocating the scanners to other government locations such as prisons, military bases or anywhere else Uncle Sam might want them.
Ironically, the scanners that will replace OSI’s x-ray machines at airports across the country are also capable of producing the same image-quality, naked picture of people walking through security. Made by L-3 Communications however, software developers there were successful in their rush to remove the photo-quality image and replace it with a simple silhouette outline of each person.
L-3 Communications’ airport scanners use a millimeter wave instead of an x-ray. The TSA currently has 669 of L-3’s machines with an option to buy 60 more. OSI Systems’s x-ray scanners are currently in 174 security lines in 30 airports. While OSI moves them to other government facilities, L-3 will replace them at the nation’s larger airports. At smaller airports around the country, the TSA confirmed, security officials will go back to the old-fashioned metal detectors that were in use prior to 9/11.
Officials agreed that the Department of Homeland Security will have final say on the switch-out of airport scanners, while Congress will decide if there is any need for further investigation into the accusations against OSI Systems. All x-ray scanners will be removed from US airports by June 2013, possibly before.
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