TSA Tests Less Invasive Screening Software…what took so long?

This morning in Las Vegas, where people go to roll the dice and play their luck, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) began testing L3 Systems ProVision ATD software loaded into their Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) millimeter wave technology scanners.

The current generation of AIT scanner software in use in by the TSA has been highly controversial in that its display depicts a detailed image of the passenger’s body for a TSA Transportation Security Officer (TSO) reviewing the scanner images. While the images render a person unidentifiable, many feel that the scanners are an invasion of their privacy. The privacy issues of the TSA AIT scanners prompted the AIT scanners to be nicknamed “nude-o-scopes.

The new AIT scanner software being tested in the field was developed by L3 Systems, and modified in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Science & Technology Directorate. This new software is generates a far less detailed image, creating a generic ‘cartoonish’ image, of the person being scanned, placing a yellow box with a red outline on the image of a person in the vicinity of an object has been detected. Once a detection box has been placed on an image, the person passing through the scanner is pulled aside for secondary screening, for a TSO to check the area around where the box appeared on the image of the person.

The L3 Systems ProVision ATD software offers some advantages over the current software loaded into millimeter wave scanners, in addition to the changes in the screening images it generates, including increased speed. The advantages to changing the scanner software includes the capability of screening upwards of 350 people per hour and the automatic detection of different materials. The sensitivity of the automatic detection in this software includes identifying liquids, gels, ceramics, powders, etc, as well as determining other specific prohibited items.

The deployment of the L3 Systems ProVision ATD software by the TSA raises some questions however. The crucial question is why is the TSA only now testing a less invasive  and faster passenger processing software solution  that was previously developed by L3 Systems and has been in use for approximately 18 months at Amsterdam’s Schiphol International Airport?

While the TSA states “TSA worked with the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Science & Technology Directorate (S&T) and private industry to develop the software,” having spoken with someone who has hands-on experience with the software, it would seem that the software is nearly identical.  Yes, L3 Systems tweaked the software to meet TSA specifications, however the comments from a person with hands-on knowledge of the software states the differences are “minor cosmetic modifications,” but would not further elaborate on that comment.

As the TSA battles with Congress over its budget and justifying its expenses, there is the looming question of what the costs were to “develop” a software that already existed, in addition to the TSA’s desire to double the number of AIT scanners it has placed in airports by the end of 2011, with an estimated cost of US$170,000 per unit.

This new images created by the AIT scanner software should appease many who oppose the AIT scanners as a violation of their personal privacy, however it does not address the health concerns by many travelers. The TSA plans to extend the testing of the new L3 Systems ProVision ATD software from Las Vegas into Atlanta’s Hartsfield Jackson International Airport and Washington DC’s Reagan National Airport in the next few days.

Below is a sample image of the TSA’s new L3 Systems ProVision ATD software detecting items on a person being scanned in a millimeter wave scanner.

Happy Flying!

a screenshot of a computer screen


  1. And they try to make the impression of being interested in improving the devices used at the airport because they care about the passengers. The truth is, however, that it is the public pressure that has contributed to that sudden change.

  2. Let’s not forget the real truth. This simply displays an image over the real and still very detailed naked image to provide an illusion of privacy for passengers. The actual and very detailed image is STILL available to the TSA and can STILL be saved on computer.

    The news media should be ashamed for going along with TSA propaganda and not reporting the real truth.

  3. Ok first of all you have to realize there are 2 technologies that the scanners use. One is the xray backscatter unit. That uses xrays. The “generic image” software is NOT in use with the xray units. The one this software upgrade applies to is the millimeter wave unit. The millimeter unit uses electromagnetic waves right near the boundary between microwaves and infrared rays on the electromagnetic spectrum. This image in RAW form is better quality than the xray images from what I’ve seen. However the software upgrade they used on the millimeter wave units prevents this detailed image from EVER being seen by the end user. Yes it does exist withing the computer’s RAM (memory) durring the scanning and annalysis process. The annalysis process detects potentially dangerous objects. Then a generic image is displayed of a human outline that is NOT specific to the person scanned. Finally indicators showing the location of the suspicous objects are overlayed on this. In the new software, the nude image data is NEVER sent to the screen to be displayed. That image data only resides in computer memory, and even then only durring the annalysis phase of the image. Once that is done and the final image is displayed, the in-memory copy of the original image is erased.

    Even on the systems that didn’t have the new software, and the images were more revealing, it was litterally IMPOSSIBLE to save the images, without an alteration to both the hardware and software of the machine. You see, these machines are not equipped with a permanent storage device like a harddrive or flashdrive. The only storage is what’s known as “volatile storage”, or “memory” (in computer terms this is the RAM of the computer). The image must be stored in ram to be displayed. That is a physical neccesity for displaying any image on any computer, as it just is how computers work, PERIOD. However a computer’s RAM does NOT provide perminent storage in any way. The moment the next image is loaded into RAM, it overwrites the RAM location of the previous image with the new image data. The image is NEVER processed by being stored on a permanent storage (or non-volatile storage) device like a harddrive, as that would pose SERIOUS privacy issues (it’s usually impossible to COMPLETELY wipe data from a magnetic storrage like a harddrive, and a flash drive could be removed before the next image was loaded, thereby keeping a copy). But with RAM (volatile storage) the moment the power is removed the memory data begins to degrade (instantly it becomes unusable in most situations, but with forensic techniques the state the transisters had previously been in before power was removed can be detected). And even when the police DO take RAM from someone’s computer for an investigation, it has completely degraded after about 1 minute, and therefore must be removed AS SOON AS power is disconnected, and IMMEDIATELY put into a container of liquid nitrogen, as the cold temperature significantly slows the degrading of the data. In other words, in order to “beat” the unsavability of the data, EXTRAORDINARY MEANS would have to be taken to sneak data out of the machine, including disassembling it while it was still powered on, and involving lots of tools and liquid nitrogen and stuff that would get the TSA AGENT being noticed by the police and arrested (not to mention FIRED from the job and never rehired for any worthwhile job, with hacking on his criminal record)!

    So yeah, the devices used are basically computers with NO HARDDRIVE, and as such can NOT save the images. The image resides in the computer’s RAM only as long it is being displayed. Taking another picture with the machine overwrites the RAM holding the previous image, and thus makes the previous image data cease to exist. Removing power from the machine will let the transistors in the RAM chips revert back to their default state, thus erasing the image from memory. Thus there is NO PERMANENT WAY that the device can store images.

    I would be MORE WORRIED about a pervert who brought his cell phone to work, and with the camera in the cellphone took a photo of the screen displaying the image. That’s a MUCH bigger threat to privacy than ANYTHING the machine itself is capable of.

  4. When will the TSA address the safety concerns of educated citizens who care about public health? When will the TSA have the Xray Backscatter scanners and Millimeter Wave Scanners properly vetted by qualified experts? When will we know how safe or unsafe these scanners are?

    I think we’ve been very patient. The stonewalling of the TSA of all FOIA requests concerning health risks posed by their equipment is a national disgrace.

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