Image problem

We felt mixed emotions upon learning that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is mothballing its backscatter X-ray machines, which are used for full-body security scans at airport boarding gates.

We're not sorry to see them go, except that we also seem to be waving goodbye to something like $40 million of Our Taxes at Work.

Backscatter, to refresh your memory, is one of two main technologies in use for full-body security screening at U.S. airports. The other is millimeter wave. Both produce highly detailed images that have been widely criticized as intrusive.

It turns out that the systems can be modified to replace the R-rated pictures with a generic cartoon image of the human form, with any metal objects or other problem areas highlighted on the screen.

This makes so much sense that Congress told the TSA to get it done. Unfortunately, what works for millimeter wave hasn't work for backscatter, and the TSA said last week that Rapiscan, which has provided the government with 250 backscatter machines, can't meet the June 1 congressional deadline. Therefore, the 170-odd backscatter machines still in use at U.S. airports are being removed.

In hindsight, it's easy to say that we never should have gone down this road, but some of us were saying that before this journey began, so it's even easier to say it again: Machines that produce the kinds of images produced by the backscatter machines should never have been deployed in the first place.

The TSA vigorously, if not stubbornly, defended these machines. Now they're gone, leaving a $40 million hole in the TSA's credibility.
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