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Scientist Says He Found Alternative to TSA Body Scanners Four Years Ago

backscatter body scanner
The TSA seems to think that aggressive pat-downs and full-body scans are the only way to protect America from terrorists, but a guy named Willard "Bill" Wattenburg thinks he found an alternative -- four years ago.

Wattenburg says he first heard of the TSA's plans to buy new "backscatter" full-body scanners in 2006, while working as a researcher at Lawrence Livermore National Library in California. "We knew what was going to happen," he claims. "People are immediately going to scream like hell because they're taking the clothes off everybody." A colleague named Ed Moses, according to Wattenburg, decided that they had to find a way to "modify the scanner images so that they do not reveal embarrassing things about a person's body profile."

So, they set about designing a prototype. Wattenburg sketched the concept, while Moses handed it over to his computer experts to fine-tune. Essentially, the solution would distort images captured by full-body scanners, rendering any concealed weapons clearly visible without blatantly revealing a passenger's body. (The TSA's scanners, by contrast, typically reveal a scan of the passenger's naked body.) "Materials you were looking for would still be there, but body shapes wouldn't be apparent," Moses explained. "From the point of view of imaging it's very straightforward." Wattenburg, meanwhile, says the idea is so simple that "a 6-year old could do the same thing with Photoshop."

Once the prototype was designed, Wattenburg allegedly sent off an application to the U.S. Patents Office in November of 2006, and called the Department of Homeland Security, with which he and his colleagues had often collaborated. The patent is still pending, but the federal government retains the rights to the idea. TSA spokesman Nick Kimball, however, would neither confirm nor deny Wattenburg's conversation with federal officials. "That was another administration," Kimball told Washington Post.

Fortunately, though, Wattenburg says the government can still adjust current scanning devices to incorporate his technology. "It's probably a few weeks' modification of the program," he said. "It's like changing the video card in your computer. They just strip out all the coding and put the very simple algorithm in." The TSA, meanwhile, says it's working on a similar solution, which could reduce scanned images to a "generic icon, a generic stick figure," while still revealing potentially dangerous items. "It isn't up to the standard we would like, but it's getting close," Kimball said. Or, if Wattenburg's solution is really as simple and effective as he says it is, they could already have the answer in their back pockets.

Tags: airport, backscatter, BodyScanners, LawrenceLivermoreNationalLaboratory, livermore, MillimeterWave, politics, privacy, scientists, security, terrorism, top, transportation, tsa