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The TSA Now Has a More Private Body Scanner

A modest proposal to give us something we rarely get back in the digital age: our privacy.

The first time an airline worker stared at my naked body on a scanner, it freaked me out. I'm not a modest person, nor one to get particularly riled up about privacy. I knew the employee staring at me was in another room, and I knew other passengers couldn't see me. Still, I'd seen the pictures—they left nothing to the imagination.

Less than six months later, I'm getting a little bit of my privacy back. The Transportation Security Administration just announced that new software will "enhance privacy by eliminating passenger-specific images." Which is to say, airport scanners will create images that look like computer-generated cutouts rather than creepy nude x-rays. It will be PG enough to show on a monitor next to you as you're scanned, but the scanner can still "auto-detect items that could pose a potential threat." The TSA press release promises, "Passengers are able to view the same outline that the TSA officer sees." It doesn't even show a body unless you have a suspicious item; if you pass, nothing but an "OK" pops up on the screen.

When technology is involved, "privacy" becomes a nebulous term: Is it truly private if people can't see your naked body, but a computer has thoroughly scrutinized it? ("If you're scanned through your clothes, and no human being is there to view the image, have you been rendered naked?" Slate asks.) Also, I'm wondering how those little pink and blue buttons workwhat if a passenger's gender is unclear, or doesn't fit into those two categories?

Despite these lingering questions, the new, generic outline makes me feel a whole lot better. When the original, more graphic scans were introduced, the outcry was relatively modest (so to speak), and the courts recently upheld the constitutionality of naked body scans. The TSA, in particular, has been ramping up invasive security measures at airports ever since September 11. So this new development is a pleasant surprise.

Of course, doing away with the x-rated x-ray technology means that the TSA doesn't need to have extra officers hidden in that room anymore. Given its budget crunch, the agency probably didn't grant us more privacy out of the goodness of its heart. Still, I'm glad no one will be staring at me unclothed the next time I get on a plane. No one human, at least.

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