Next Stop for Controversial Airport Scanners: Office Buildings?

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Say "cheese," federal employees!

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Imagine this, in your office. (Reuters)

Last month, the Transportation Security Administration ended its contract with the airport scanner maker Rapiscan, pledging to remove the company's controversial backscatter x-ray machines from the country's airports. 

This may have been good news for plane passengers concerned with the scanners' health effects, and good news as well for passengers who didn't relish the idea of cartoonish-but-nonetheless-naked images of themselves being generated in the name of safety. It was significantly less good news, however, for the TSA, which now finds itself in the awkward position of having hundreds of machines, but no airport to put them in. (The agency has removed 76 machines from airports so far, and has plans to remove the remaining 174 by June 1 of this year.) 

Here's the other problem: Those machines, as you might suspect, aren't cheap. Each one is worth about $160,000, meaning that the displaced devices have come at a total price of $40 million. It would be great, from the TSA's perspective, to find a way to make the machines useful again -- to find them a permanent, and ideally non-controversial, home. 

One potential solution: office buildings. Specifically, governmental office buildings. "We are working with other government agencies to find homes for them," TSA spokesman David Castelveter told Federal Times. "There is an interest clearly by DoD and the State Department to use them -- and other agencies as well."

On the one hand, this makes a lot of sense: The machines, for all their controversy in the airport setting, certainly work to detect concealed weapons -- and federal buildings, we know all too well, are all too often the targets of gunmen. This is why many office buildings, of course, already use metal detectors; backscatters would simply be an escalation of that trend. On the other hand, though, it's hard to see the machines being any less controversial for office workers as they've been for airline passengers. If people were concerned about the radiation exposure posed by machine walk-throughs during the rare times they flew, imagine how the concern could escalate considering the daily -- and sometimes multiple-times-a-day -- walkthroughs that would be demanded of office workers. 

And along those lines: the naked pictures! While it's one thing to have those images out there in airports -- a cartoony little secret between you and the TSA -- it's quite another to have them present in the office setting. In your office setting. Even if the images are kept private, as they are supposed to be, if people have been made uncomfortable by the notion of the images seen by strangers at an airport, they will likely be approximately 1,000 times more weirded out by the notion of the images seen by coworkers. 

So TSA, still, has its work cut out for it. Not only does it still need to find a home for the old backscatter machines; it also has to make way for new ones. The agency is in the process of replacing the old devices with "millimeter-wave" scanners that use a different kind of scanning technology and produce a less-detailed image than the backscatters. Those are deployed at about 200 airports -- for the time being, at least.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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