TSA Announcement on Controversial X-ray Scanners Welcomed

NEW YORK, N.Y. -

Agudath Israel of America is welcoming the decision by the Transportation Security Administration to remove the “backscatter” x-ray technology from security checkpoints at the nation’s airports.

From the time the technology was first announced, the Orthodox Jewish group has voiced opposition to its use, which produces images of passengers that violate their privacy.

“The religious sensitivities of many Americans were offended by the technology,” said Rabbi Abba Cohen, the organization’s Vice President for Federal Affairs and Washington Director, “and legitimate privacy issues were implicated by its use.” Numerous meetings and communications took place over the years between Agudath Israel and the TSA concerning the x-rays. At one point, several religious groups were invited to Washington by TSA for a demonstration of this and other technologies.

Public pressure eventually reached Congress, which ordered that privacy software be installed on the backscatter devices by June. On Thursday, Rapiscan, the maker of the X-ray, or backscatter, scanner, acknowledged that it wouldn’t be able to meet the June deadline. The TSA said Friday that it ended its contract for the software with Rapiscan. Other airport body scanners, made by L-3 Communications, use millimeter waves to make an image that is much more generic, said an AP report.

The need for heightened airport security was recognized by the federal government after the September 11 attacks and other incidents where explosives were able to get past security checkpoints. While they have slowly been phased out, there currently remain 174 backscatter machines in 30 airports around the country. The TSA will remove all backscatter scanners now is use, reports the Associated Press.

Rabbi Cohen points out that, while the Jewish community is particularly sensitive to security concerns, “We strongly believed that religious and privacy issues needed to be taken into consideration as well and that seeking
a reasonable accommodation, where both safety and civil rights issues would be met, was the appropriate course. We consistently encouraged the TSA to pursue new technologies that would achieve everyone’s mutual objectives.”

This approach — and persistence — apparently produced results. The alternative x-ray technology shows passengers’ images as generic stick figures, while still being able to detect the presence of weapons or other explosive devices. Over 600 of these machines, commonly known as “millimeter wave” devices, can be found in 170 airports around the country.

TSA spokesman David Castelveter said that not all of the machines will be replaced. Rather, some airports that now have backscatter scanners will go back to having metal detectors. That’s what most airports used before scanners were introduced.

The Rapiscan scanners have been on their way out for months, in slow motion, reported the Associated Press. The government hadn’t bought any since 2011. It quietly removed them from seven major airports in October, including New York’s LaGuardia and Kennedy airports, Chicago’s O’Hare, and Los Angeles International. The TSA moved a handful of the X-ray scanners to very small airports. At the time, the agency said the switch was being made because millimeter-wave scanners moved passengers through faster.