CHICAGO -- The U.S. is quietly removing full-body X-ray scanners from seven major airports and replacing them with a different type of machine that produces a cartoon-like outline instead of the naked images that have been compared to a virtual strip search.
The Transportation Security Administration says it is making the switch in technology to speed up lines at crowded airports, not to ease passenger privacy concerns. But civil liberties groups hope the change signals that the equipment will eventually go to the scrap heap.
"Hopefully this represents the beginning of a phase-out of the X-ray-type scanners, which are more privacy intrusive and continue to be surrounded by health questions," said Jay Stanley, a privacy expert at the American Civil Liberties Union.
The machines will not be retired. They are being moved to smaller airports while Congress presses the TSA to adopt stronger privacy safeguards on all of its imaging equipment.
In the two years since they first appeared at the nation's busiest airports, the "backscatter" model of scanner has been the focus of protests and lawsuits because it uses X-rays to peer beneath travelers' clothing.
The machines are being pulled out of New York's LaGuardia and Kennedy airports, Chicago's O'Hare, Los Angeles International and Boston Logan, as well as airports in Charlotte, N.C., and Orlando, Fla.
The TSA would not comment on whether it planned to remove machines from any other locations.
Some of the backscatter scanners have gone to airports in Mesa, Ariz., Key West, Fla., and San Juan, Puerto Rico. The TSA is deciding where to send others.