Should TSA Body Scanners Distort Naked Images?

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A Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory scientist says he has a simple fix for the uproar over the Transportation Safety Agency's body scanners. Distort the image, Willard Wattenburg argues, and you take away (at least some of) the privacy objections that could be made. In Wattenburg's formulation, noted by the Washington Post, bodies would be stretched as in a funhouse mirror, presumably removing any titillation associated with nudity.

The TSA is pursuing a more complex computer-vision system that, as we reported last week, may not be as easy to construct as the agency hopes.

Wattenburg first filed a patent for his system in 2006, after which he says he contacted the Department of Homeland Security because it was obvious to him that as soon as the scanners went into use, people would "scream like hell because they're taking the clothes off everybody" The DHS wasn't interested, according to the Post story.

Technologically, image processing to distort a body's form is trivial. You take the image that comes in from the scanner, pick some reference points on the body, and then elongate, resize, and stretch the image. The images come out looking less human very quickly -- and that's precisely the point. As Wattenburg notes, any kid with Photoshop could do it. We took him at his word and mocked up -- in rough fashion -- what one of the images could look like after going through one of these distortion algorithms.

The big question seems to be whether Wattenburg's system would allow TSA scanners to see whatever weapons or explosives they might be trying to see. To find out, there would have to be extensive field testing, which has never been done and is not currently planned.

The new system also would not obviate concerns about the accidental or malicious 
storage of images. Nor would it answer Jeff Goldberg's concerns about bombs hidden in body cavities and which these scanners cannot detect.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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