Body scanners will now show ‘stick figures’
New software means no more naked images at Canadian airports
The controversial naked images produced by full body scanners at airports in Canada are being replaced by computer-generated, generic “stick figures.”
The scanners, which total 52 in use at Canada’s major airports, are being retrofitted with new software to make them less invasive. The federal government announced Tuesday that its Automatic Target Recognition software shows cookiecutter front and back silhouettes for every passenger chosen for additional screening. Any anomalies under the clothing show up as yellow squares.
“This new software will ensure the continued safety and security of Canadian passengers, while respecting their privacy,” said Steven Fletcher, minister of state for transport, in a release.
The two millimetre-wave scanners at major Class 1 Canadian airports were modified on April 4, said Mathieu Larocque, a spokesman for the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority. The modification of scanners at smaller airports should be completed by the end of this week.
The millimetre-wave technology works by projecting low-level radio frequency energy over and around the passenger’s body. The RF wave is reflected back from the body and signals are recovered using highly sensitive detectors.
“Essentially, the way we use the scanners has been the same for three years and continues to be the same,” Larocque said.
“What’s new is that new software. Instead of having what was called a naked image displayed in a separate room where screening officers would analyze whether there were potential threats on a passenger’s body, the software analyzes the image itself and produces a stick man figure with a yellow square where an area needs further inspection.
“If there’s nothing to worry about, there’s just a big OK on the screen. If there is, there’s a stick man with a yellow square on the part of the body that may require further inspection.”
Passengers who trigger an alarm have the opportunity to remove items and go through scanning again. If the alarm goes off again, the officer does a “directed patdown” of the area, he said.
Airport body scanners have been in use at Canadian airports for three years. Passengers selected for a secondary search can choose between the full body scan or a physical search.
The machines have generated controversy since their introduction because some airline passengers were offended by the revealing images, and privacy advocates likened them to strip searches.
Those concerns prompted the changes, Larocque said.
“The Office of the Privacy Commissioner also identified that as a concern and we made a commitment to continue to work toward an improvement on the privacy side.”
When new software became available, it was tested in 2010 and it became ready to deploy this April, Larocque said.
In the United States, the Transportation Security Administration ordered the removal of full body scanners using a different X-ray backscatter technology in January after it decided software to make the machines less intrusive could not be developed by a June deadline set by Congress.
The TSA still uses millimetre-wave scanners. The technology is also in use in The Netherlands, according to Transport Canada.
The scanner does not collect personal information from the passengers it screens, the release said.
Linda McKay-Panos, executive director of the Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre, said the new stick-figure software is an improvement over previous revealing images.
“I’m thinking it’s an improvement, but I would still want to be assured that the information that is garnered through that is properly collected, stored and disposed of,” McKay-Panos said.
“Even though it may not indicate your shape, it does indicate maybe things that you have on your body. That could be private information.”