Dr. Willard H. (Bill) Wattenburg
The Transportation Security Administration says it is making the switch in technology to speed up lines at crowded airports, not to ease passenger privacy concerns. But civil liberties groups hope the change signals that the equipment will eventually go to the scrap heap.
"Hopefully this represents the beginning of a phase-out of the X-ray-type scanners, which are more privacy intrusive and continue to be surrounded by health questions," said Jay Stanley, a privacy expert at the American Civil Liberties Union.
The researcher, associated with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, said he was rebuffed when he offered the concept to Department of Homeland Security officials four years ago.
The fix would distort the images captured on full-body
scanners so they look like reflections in a fun-house mirror, but any
potentially dangerous objects would be clearly revealed, said Willard
"Bill" Wattenburg, a former nuclear weapons designer at the Livermore
lab. The scanners normally produce real-time outlines of the naked
human body, and the Transportation Security
Administration has been embroiled in controversy since
installation of the new scanners began last month.
A predicted outcry
Livermore engineers have been deeply involved in enhancing airport security. Wattenburg said a Livermore colleague, Ed Moses, turned to him and said, "There must be some way to modify the scanner images so that they do not reveal embarrassing things about a person's body profile." Wattenburg, whose long resume includes designing anti-terrorist devices, sketched out a possible solution and delivered it to Moses, whose computer experts refined the concept. "Materials you were looking for would still be there, but body shapes wouldn't be apparent," Moses, the principal assistant director of the Livermore lab said on Saturday. "From the point of view of imaging it's very straightforward. Someone should do a quick study of it in an operational setting."
The Livermore laboratory sent off a final application to the
U.S. Patent Office on Nov. 23, 2006, and about three weeks later
Wattenburg said he called the Department of Homeland Security to share
the good news. The patent application is on appeal, according to
government records, but the federal government owns the rights to the
idea. "These guys usually come to us when they have a huge
problem," Wattenburg said on Thursday. "If it's something simple, we
tell them and they don't listen."
David McCallen, a deputy director for national security at Livermore who developed the idea with Wattenburg, said the concept is simple and should be put through rigorous field testing. "What it needs is vetting with real testing," McCallen said Saturday. "This is important stuff so you want to do very thorough testing." TSA official Kimball said the agency is working on development of scanner technology that would reduce the image to a "generic icon, a generic stick figure" that would still reveal potentially dangerous items." "It isn't up to the standard we would like, but it's getting close," Kimball said.
Wattenburg is semi-retired and works as a consultant to Livermore and several major government contractors. Familiar with the federal bureaucracy, he said he doubts the TSA will take the simplest course of action. "They are so far down the road in buying all the equipment that they're too embarrassed to reverse course," he said. "Their very sophisticated equipment can be made to do this."