For years, if you were uncomfortable going through an electronic scanner at airport security, you could opt for a physical pat-down instead. But the days of the guaranteed ability to opt out of a TSA electronic screening are over, according to an update to policy issued by the Department of Homeland Security.
The report, issued by DHS on December 18 and titled, "Privacy Impact Assessment Update for TSA Advanced Imaging Technology" outlines new rules for passengers being screened before at airports. The opt-out rule isn't being removed entirely, just weakened. The most relevant passage reads as follows (emphasis mine):
TSA is updating the AIT PIA to reflect a change to the operating protocol regarding the ability of individuals to opt opt-out of AIT screening in favor of physical screening. While passengers may generally decline AIT screening in favor of physical screening, TSA may direct mandatory AIT screening for some passengers.
AIT is "Advanced Imaging Technology," or the large screening machines you've been through if you've taking a flight in the past few years, which are used to detect "threat objects carried on persons." In the past, the option to opt out of AIT body scan and have an agent perform a physical inspection instead was guaranteed.
While the new policy reassures that passengers "generally will have the option to decline an AIT screening in favor of physical screening," the TSA will now be able to "direct mandatory AIT screening for some passengers as warranted by security considerations in order to safeguard transportation security." What security considerations would warrant mandatory screening aren't outlined.
The new policy seems to stem from the use of Automatic Target Recognition (ATR) software, which the agency says "display the location of the object on a generic figure as opposed to displaying the image of the individual." The plans to adopt the technology were announced several years ago, and it's been rolled out over the past couple of years. Older scanners displayed a "naked" figure of the person being scanned.
I've reached out to the DHS for more information on what sorts of security considerations would prompt mandatory screening, and will update this story if they reply.
Ethan Chiel is a reporter for Fusion, writing mostly about the internet and technology. You can (and should) email him at firstname.lastname@example.org