TSA eliminates graphic X-ray shots

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has completely stopped taking graphic images of airline passengers at airport security checkpoints, the agency has told lawmakers. 

The images had been heavily criticized as invasive, and TSA had come under enormous pressure to change its systems, with both Republican and Democratic lawmakers pressing it to add privacy filters to their X-ray machines. 

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In a letter sent to lawmakers last week but released publicly Thursday, the agency told members of the House Homeland Security Committee that its machines would only take generic images of the human body, and that all scanners were now equipped with Automated Target Recognition (ATR) as of this month.

“As of May 16, 2013, all [Advanced Imaging Technology scanners] are equipped with ATR capability,” TSA Administrator John Pistole wrote in a letter to the top lawmakers in each party on the Homeland Security panel. 

“Additionally, TSA’s procurement of next generation AIT requires ATR capability,” Pistole continued. “TSA is in compliance with the statute, and I will no longer be seeking further extension of the implementation deadline.”

Congress ordered TSA to add privacy filters to its X-ray machines in the funding bill that was passed for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in 2012. The agency was supposed to have retrofitted all of its scanners by June 1, but the deadline appeared in doubt when TSA ended its contract with the company it purchased the machines from, Rapiscan, in January.

The controversial "backscatter" X-ray machines produced black-and-white images of airline passengers as they were screened for security risks.

The backscatter scanners were among the most criticized of TSA's airport-security procedures. Critics said images captured by the machines invade the personal space of airline passengers, and they questioned the agency on what happened to those explicit pictures after security checks were completed.

Critics also raised health concerns about the radiation that it is emitted from the backscatter X-ray machines.

Lawmakers on the House Homeland Security Committee praised TSA’s decision to completely eliminate the controversial X-ray machines. 

“I applaud TSA for becoming compliant with the law mandating that all AIT machines used by TSA are equipped with up-to-date privacy filters,” Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said in a statement. “Because of this action and congressional oversight, TSA will never again use machines to screen passengers that do not obscure their imagines while maintaining security.”

TSA's full letter can be read here.

This story was updated at 10:56 a.m. and 11:53 a.m.