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TSA wants new generation of scanners

Published time: February 13, 2014 18:48
A full body scanner at Midway Airport (AFP Photo / Getty Images / Scott Olson)

A full body scanner at Midway Airport (AFP Photo / Getty Images / Scott Olson)

Air travel in America might soon become a lot easier: the Department of Homeland Security wants companies to develop a security scanner that won't require airline passengers to disrobe ahead of departure.

According to a whitepaper unearthed by reporters at the website NextGov this week, the DHS is interested in acquiring new screening tools that could save travelers a lot of time before take-off.

Currently, those traveling by air in the United States are asked to remove their coats, belts and shoes before being screened for contraband ahead of boarding. The request for information made by the DHS suggests that could soon change, however. According to the document, Homeland Security officials want to install screening devices that could process upwards of 250 passengers an hour – or around four-per-minute.

Companies are being asked to provide the DHS with details about tools that could screen passengers without requiring them to partake in the time-consuming process of removing multiple layers of clothing and accessories ahead of take-off.

“DHS desires information on technical solutions,” the request reads, with new “capabilities to detect, respond, defeat and mitigate the effects of non-nuclear explosives terrorism and accidents.”

Agents employed by the Transportation Security Administration — a daughter agency to the DHS — are currently equipped with a number of tools, including X-ray machines and body-scanners, to search the bodies and belongings of air travelers. Since being implemented after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, however, those tools have consistently come under have criticism from alleged privacy violations — as well as allegations that have implied the expensive technology does next-to-nothing when it comes to tracking would-be terrorists.

The NextGov report comes just days after a former TSA agent published a scathing article in the DC-based outlet POLITICO lambasting the screening procedures used by his ex-employer.

We knew the full-body scanners didn't work before they were even installed,” Jason Edward Harrington told POLITICO. “The scanners were useless. The TSA was compelling toddlers, pregnant women, cancer survivors – everyone – to stand inside radiation machines that didn't work...behind closed doors, supervisors instructed us to begin patting down the sides of every fifth passenger as a clumsy workaround to the scanners' embarrassing vulnerability.”

The TSA has also come under attack regularly for subjecting passengers to invasive pat-downs during screening procedures, and agents as recently as this month were accused of humiliating a cancer patient during one such pat-down at an unnamed US airport.

But according to the recently published document, Homeland Security is currently in the midst of planning stages for a “next generation Advanced Imaging Technology,” or AIT, “program capable of quickly conducting such searches” using space-age tools currently not in the TSA's arsenal.

“AIT systems will be deployed at security checkpoints and will initially enhance and not replace current technologies such as the walk through metal detector and X-ray baggage scanner,” the request reads. “The system will automatically detect the required threats with no operator interpretation required. It will have a footprint as small as possible and fit seamlessly into current operations. The people being scanned should not be required to significantly alter walking paths or divest beyond current procedures. An ultimate goal is to significantly reduce divesting of personal items such as shoes and reach a 'screen-while-walk' operational capability."

“This program will incorporate recent scientific discoveries in imaging technology into commercial people screening systems for eventual deployment to DHS operational components,” it reads elsewhere.

Neither the DHS or its daughter agency, the TSA, has offered any further comment on the request for information. They expect companies to submit proposals by March 11, however, suggesting that they can start considering their options as soon as just a few weeks from now.