The Transportation Security Administration is removing controversial full-body scanners made by a Torrance manufacturer, winning praise from privacy advocates and passenger-rights groups that raised questions about the health effects of the devices.
Rapiscan, a unit of OSI Systems Inc., manufactured about 200 full-body scanners used by the TSA to screen passengers for hidden weapons at airports across the country. The machines generated a storm of protest because the devices use low levels of radiation to create what resembles a nude image of screened passengers.
The machines, one of two types of scanners used by the TSA for passenger screening, will be pulled from all airports by this summer. The TSA had already begun to remove the Rapiscan scanners from Los Angeles International Airport in October to replace them with faster screening machines.
The agency won't use the Rapiscan full-body scanners because the company could not produce a software upgrade to protect the privacy of passengers in time to meet a congressional deadline, according to TSA and Rapsican officials.
Privacy advocates and others praised the move, saying the scanners violated the privacy of passengers and exposed them to unhealthy levels of radiation — a charge the TSA denies.
"This is a significant victory for privacy," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, an advocacy group that sued to try to force the TSA to hold public hearings over the deployment of full-body scanners at airports. "The announcement by the TSA is recognition that if devices don't respect the privacy of the public, they don't belong here."
Rapiscan has agreed to pay the cost of removing its scanners from airports. Most will be replaced by a second type of scanner that uses radio waves and shows hidden objects projected onto a generic avatar image on a screen — not on a nude-like image of a passenger. Those scanners are built by New York-based L-3 Communications Holdings.
"It's good news and a step in the right direction," said Brandon M. Macsata, executive director of the Assn. for Airline Passenger Rights, an advocacy group that has questioned the health effects of the X-ray scans on passengers. "We still have questions about whether these machines really make airports that much safer."
The Rapiscan scanners use low-level X-rays to create what looks like a naked image of screened passengers to uncover weapons hidden under clothes. TSA officers in isolated rooms see the images and then notify other agents at the security lines if hidden weapons are spotted.
Since 2007, the TSA has used full-body scanners, in addition to metal detectors and random pat-down searches, to try to prevent terrorists from sneaking explosives onto planes. But the TSA has been accused by privacy groups, members of Congress and others of using extreme tactics.
Responding to questions about the safety of the scanners, TSA officials said the machines have been repeatedly tested by medical experts and found to expose passengers to levels of radiation well below safe health standards.
To address privacy concerns, Congress imposed a June 2013 deadline for Rapiscan to come up with a software upgrade that would prevent the scanner from showing TSA agents the nude-like images. But Rapiscan officials said the company wouldn't be able to meet that deadline.
"TSA has strict requirements that all vendors must meet for security effectiveness and efficiency since the use of this technology is critical to TSA's efforts to keep the traveling public safe," the TSA said in a statement.
Rapiscan representatives called the TSA decision "unfortunate" but noted that they fulfilled their $15-million contract to build the machines and continue to produce security devices for the TSA, including luggage scanners and metal detectors.
Peter Kant, executive vice president of Rapiscan, said his company won't collect on the $5-million contract to complete the software upgrade and must pay for the cost of removing the existing scanners from airports across the country. But he added: "For a $400-million company, that's a pretty small number."
The scanners that will be removed from airports will be used by the military and federal law enforcement, among other government agencies, for security screening, Kant said.
Rapiscan has more than 1,000 employees worldwide and reported nearly $400 million in sales in 2012.