Travelers soon won't need to worry about revealing too much skin during security scans at Tampa International Airport.
To blunt criticism that the fuzzy images of people's bodies amounted to a digital strip search, the Transportation Security Administration is installing software to make airport scanners across the country less intrusive.
With the older technology, travelers step inside a scanner that creates an X-ray-like image of their bodies beneath the outer layer of clothes. A TSA officer in a remote room examines the 3-D picture for suspicious items and passes along the results.
The upgraded machines produce a generic gray outline of a human form for every passenger on a screen attached to the scanning booth. Some workers have nicknamed the image "The Gumby." Potential weapons or explosives show up as yellow boxes located on the figure.
Screens, roughly the size of a laptop computer, flash a green "OK'' for passengers that pass the scan. Travelers who set off an alert will get a hands-on body search by a TSA officer. Ditto for passengers who refuse to submit to scanning.
The work to install the new software is under way at Tampa International, said TSA spokeswoman Sari Koshetz. Citing security concerns, she declined to say when machines with the new software will begin screening passengers at TIA's four gate terminals.
"We are installing it in Tampa and will do a demonstration for the traveling public soon,'' Koshetz said. Eventually, all scanners in U.S. airports that use radio waves to identify weapons hidden under clothes — called millimeter wave scanners — will get the software change.
The TSA tested the new software this year at Las Vegas McCarran International, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International and Ronald Reagan Washington National airports.
"We believe it addresses the privacy issues that have been raised,'' said TSA Administrator John Pistole said at a Washington news conference in February.
The agency also found two other advantages: The upgraded machines take less time to screen travelers and don't require an officer to view the images in a remote room.
Pistole declared the tests a success three weeks ago and pledged to load the software into all of the TSA's 241 millimeter wave scanners — nearly half of all the scanners the agency operates.
L-3 Communications, a huge defense contractor headquartered in New York, assembles the ProVision millimeter wave machines in a plant just off Interstate 275 in St. Petersburg. The facility employs about 230 workers.
The TSA also buys scanners from Rapiscan Systems of Torrance, Calif., which uses X-rays to make a two-dimensional image for screening. Rapiscan is expected to have similar software that creates a generic passenger image ready for the TSA to start testing in the fall.
Information from the Washington Post was used in this report. Contact Steve Huettel at [email protected] or (813) 226-3384.