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Documents refute TSA privacy claims on body scanners, group says

Body imaging technologies can store, transmit images of airline passengers, EPIC says

January 11, 2010 04:17 PM ET

Computerworld - The Transportation Security Administration is overstating the privacy protections applied in the use of whole body scanners at U.S. airports, a leading privacy advocacy group warned today.

As a result of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) recently obtained U.S. Department of Homeland Security documents related to the use of whole body imaging technologies.

The documents "clearly refute" what the TSA has said about the devices on a number of fronts, said Marc Rotenberg, EPIC's executive director. They also show that the devices, which are based on Windows XP technology, may be vulnerable to tampering, EPIC said.

The documents show that contrary to the representations of the TSA, whole body imaging devices include the ability to store, record and transfer images of passengers screened at U.S. airports. The device specifications include hard disk storage, USB integration and Ethernet connectivity, all of which raise significant privacy and security concerns, EPIC said.

The advocacy group said the device's specifications allow the TSA to manipulate 10 variable privacy settings.

"Presumably, privacy can be dialed both up and down," Rotenberg said.

The TSA's technical specifications for the body scanners and its language in vendor contracts show that the systems also have a category of generic superusers who have the ability to disable privacy functions at any time, EPIC said. The group also drew attention to the fact that the systems are based on Windows XP Embedded with Ethernet connectivity and are therefore subject to all of the security risks associated with Windows.

In an e-mailed comment, a TSA spokeswoman today said the TSA is committed to ensuring the privacy of the traveling public to the greatest extent possible. "This technology is part of our multi-layered security strategy to stay ahead of evolving threats," she wrote.

On the DHS Web site, the department maintains that all full body scanners are delivered to airports without the capability to store, print or transmit images. It says each image is automatically deleted after it is cleared by the officer looking at the images. It also says the documents obtained by EPIC show that the TSA required the ability to store and export images only for use while testing the systems, and that the ability to change privacy settings was only possible in the testing phase. The machines also are not connected to one another, or to the Internet, making external hacking unlikely.

EPIC's concerns over the body scanning technology come amid what appears to be growing public support for use of the machines after a failed attempt to blow up a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day. In a USA Today/Gallup poll conducted last week, 78% of those surveyed said they approve of full body scans on airline passengers. About 67% said they would not feel uncomfortable if they were to undergo a full body scan at an airline security checkpoint.

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