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Many Female Travelers Feel Targeted By TSA Agents

By Kate Merrill, WBZ-TV
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A sign informs travelers about Millimeter Wave Detection technology used in full body scanners. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

A sign informs travelers about Millimeter Wave Detection technology used in full body scanners. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

BOSTON (CBS) – Full body scanners are designed to help the TSA guard against terrorism. But some of the machines, including those at Logan airport, have sparked privacy concerns because they can see right through a passenger’s clothing. Now some travelers are concerned that TSA agents may be looking for more than concealed weapons.

Ellen Terrell is one of those passengers. She believes TSA agents were gawking at her naked image as she passed through the scanner at a Dallas airport. “They wanted a nice, good look,” she said. According to Ellen, when she passed through the scanner the first time, the female agent manning the machine stopped her. “Wait, hold on. We didn’t get it,” Ellen said recalling what the agent said to her. The agent sent her back in for a second scan, but that wasn’t good enough. After the third scan, Ellen said even the agent seemed to be frustrated talking into a microphone to reach her co-workers viewing the images in another room. “It’s not blurry. I’m letting her go,” Ellen recalled.

WBZ-TV’s Kate Merrill reports

It is not the first time TSA has heard this kind of story from women. We went through hundreds of complaints. Several women described very similar stories. One woman said, “I feel I was targeted to go through this ‘see you naked machine’ because I am a semi-attractive female.” Another woman said only women were told to go through the scanner. A third stated, “The screener appeared to enjoy the process of picking someone.”

The machines, often called naked scanners, were retrofitted at the Dallas airport that Ellen flew out of. They now only show generic, almost stick-like figures, and any areas of concern are highlighted with a yellow box. But the so-called naked scanners are still used all over the country including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, DC and TF Green in Rhode Island.

They are also used at Logan, which has a total of 17 units throughout the airport. We asked the TSA here in Boston for an interview to explain what they do to prevent these types of abuses, but they refused. In an emailed statement a spokesperson said:

“When TSA deployed imaging technology to airports, we were very aware of the privacy concerns associated with them and took many proactive steps to alleviate concerns. Private viewing rooms are in place to enhance passenger privacy and TSA ensures access is strictly limited and supervised. An officer has just seconds to review each image for possible threats – privacy filters blur images considerably and erase facial features. Sample images are available on www.tsa.gov to address misconceptions about image quality. All millimeter wave technology units, including those in Dallas, have been upgraded with additional privacy enhancements that no longer display passenger-specific images. TSA plans to test the same privacy-enhancing software for the backscatter units like the ones at Logan Airport in the coming months. The technology is and always has been optional for all passengers.”

Shortly after hearing Ellen’s story, New York Senator Charles Schumer filed legislation that would require airports to hire passenger advocates who could handle these types of complaints on the spot. “While most TSA agents do a very good job, some may go out of line,” he said. “The passenger ought to have some recourse.”

Passengers are allowed to refuse the scanner and opt for a pat down from a TSA agent. Only female TSA agents are allowed to search female passengers.

The TSA is currently testing new software that would eliminate the detail in the scanned images. TSA officials in Boston hope to have that up and running at Logan in the next couple of months.

The TSA addressed Ellen’s complaint on their blog.

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