Saturday, April 20th, 2019

Do Fairground Mirrors provide the answer to Invasive Body Scanners?

Published on November 26, 2010 by   ·   No Comments

Paul Marks/NewScience

As Americans head for their Thanksgiving holidays, many travelling by air will be opting for a full body scan rather than endure an intimate “enhanced patdown” from officers of the Transportation Security Administration. But many will still fret about quite where the grainy, monochrome images of their naked forms will end up: on a TSA canteen wall, suitably captioned? A tabloid? Even worse…Facebook?

They should fear no more – for one-time nuclear weapons designer Bill Wattenburg has the answer. His cunning plan is to use in-scanner image-processing software to make every naked scan look like the grotesque contorted image in a fairground mirror – or fun house mirror as they are known in the US.

That way, reasons the former Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory researcher, any explosives lurking in a terrorist’s gusset, cleavage or armpit will still be visible – but the person will have squat legs about 30 centimetres long, a 2-metre-long torso and a pin-sized head – in other words, he or she will be unrecognisable.

Wattenburg’s plan sounds feasible – sort of. But if a computer can distort an image, it’s worth remembering that it can also be undistorted. Criminals have already been captured this way - most famously when Interpol untwirled Photoshop’s image twisting algorithm to nab a paedophile. And if a small piece of explosive is visible in one view, could a concertina algorithm squash it to a vanishingly small level?

We don’t know. Wattenburg says he approached the TSA’s paymaster, the Department of Homeland Security, with the idea in 2006, but it came to nought.

While that idea is pondered, some TSA screeners have been making it pretty clear they don’t enjoy the new post-pants-bomber regime any more than the passengers. Complaints abound about having to “feel inside the flab rolls of obese passengers” and “the large number of passengers who don’t understand what personal hygiene is.”

There have undoubtedly been some highly stressful experiences for some passengers at TSA checkpoints as well, and the screeners need to learn from that – bigtime.

But I can’t help feeling that some of those who are complaining (particularly on Twitter) most about the body scanners and patdowns will be amongst those most likely to sue the DHS, TSA or airline for negligence if they are ever injured by a shoe bomber who, if such measures were to be abandoned, might soon be accepting a bag of peanuts in a window seat next to a wing full of explosive jet fuel.

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