There is apparently a cheap and easy fix to the problem people have with airport scanners, but researchers say the government turned it down.
Willard Wattenburg, who is affiliated with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, one of the government's most prestigious institutes, said software could distort the images produced by the scanners. So instead of an accurate nude image, it would look like a reflection in a fun-house mirror.
Wattenburg told The Washington Post he offered the concept to the Department of Homeland Security four years ago, and was turned down.
"Why not just distort the image into something grotesque so that there isn't anything titillating or exciting about it?" Wattenburg said.
TSA spokesman Nick Kimball said he could not confirm Wattenburg's 2006 conversation with Homeland Security. "That was another administration," Kimball said.
Wattenburg predicted this problem when he heard the TSA was going to buy the "backscatter" scanners. "We knew what was going to happen," he said. "People are immediately going to scream like hell because they're taking the clothes off everybody."
Wattenburg said a Livermore colleague, Ed Moses, said to him, "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 sketched out a solution and gave 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. "From the point of view of imaging it's very straightforward."
Wattenburg said the fix would be almost immediate. "It's probably a few weeks' modification of the program," he said. "It's like changing the video card in your computer. They just strip out all the coding and put the very simple algorithm in. You could teach a kid how to do it."
Kimball said the TSA 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."
He added, "It isn't up to the standard we would like, but it's getting close."