The Transportation Security Administration confirmed Friday that it will pull the plug on "nude" airport scanners that produce a full body image of the traveler, replacing a technology that has sparked national controversy over privacy and safety.
The TSA told NBC News that it had decided to remove all "backscatter" imaging machines — a total of 174 scanners still in use in 30 airports — by June 1.
The TSA plans to deploy additional "millimeter wave body scanners," which use a generic stick figure as an image, to some of the affected airports while others will just have walk-through metal detectors.
The government began rolling out the backscatter technology in airports after the failed underwear bombing on Christmas Day 2009. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had concealed plastic explosives in his underwear on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. He was restrained by other passengers who were also able to put out a fire started in his attempt to detonate the explosives.
The “nude” imaging technology sparked a public outcry and lawsuits charging that the machines constituted an invasion of privacy. Although travelers were allowed to opt-out of the naked body scan, they would then be subjected to a pat-down, which many travelers thought was just as invasive.
Some experts also questioned the "nude" scanners’ effectiveness and safety, because the machines subject the traveler being screened to a small amount of radiation, which at higher doses have been linked to cancer.
The company producing the machines, Rapiscan Systems, had been contracted to produce 500 machines for the TSA at about $180,000 apiece, but the government has terminated the contract, Wired Magazine reported Friday.
The TSA had been quietly replacing the body scanners for several months, swapping them out at Boston Logan International Airport, Los Angeles International Airport, Chicago O'Hare, Orlando and John F. Kennedy in New York, as NBC News and ProPublica reported in October.
At the time, the TSA said that the decision was designed to speed up checkpoints at busier airports.
First published January 18 2013, 3:26 PM