Although the subject of this post is a considerable departure from my original intentions for this blog, something terrible is happening, and I’d like to share my thoughts about it. I don’t have any other place to do so. In any case, it’s closely related to the question of privacy, which is a recurring subject online these days.
The growing controversy in the United States over the screening procedures being used by the TSA for passengers flying on commercial airlines in the US is shocking, not so much for the tactics being used by the TSA and those who wish to profit from the $338 million government investment in improving security, as those are predictable, but for the reaction of a large majority of Americans who seem willing to acquiese to these measures as “a necessary inconvenience” to protect innocent travelers from potential terrorists. This is nonsense, and I am dumbfounded that people would so easily be duped into giving up their personal rights for the comfort of feeling safe from terrorists.
Since 9/11 immigration and travel procedures have slowly but surely become increasingly invasive to personal privacy, while doing relatively little to deter an actual terrorist attack. The real measures taken to prevent such attacks are not directly visible, so these new procedures serve as little more than reassuring poorly informed and scared citizens.
To understand what follows this blog post by Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic was the article that broke the news and gives a good overview of the new procedures. Passengers going through airport security are randomly selected to receive a full body scan using either backscatter X-ray or millimeter wave technology. These scanners produce images more or less equivalent to images of the person naked. If a passenger does not want to submit to the scanner, he can opt out, but if he does so, he must submit to a physical pat-down, otherwise he will not be allowed on the plane. Initially, these pat-downs were equivalent to a rapid “frisking,” similar to what is practiced by law enforcement authorities, and while unpleasant, respected people’s intimacy. Often the frisking was done with a metal detector, so that the TSA agent was not touching the person directly with their (gloved) hands.
However this procedure was recently changed to include direct touching of the entire body, including people’s “private” regions. Specifically that means TSA agents are now “feeling” breasts and genitals. Stop and think about that. TSA agents mandated by the Federal Government are feeling people’s genitals before they can board a plane in an attempt to prevent terrorist attacks. I am mystified that people will accept something so ludicrous.
Are Americans so afraid of possibly being blown up that they are willing to succumb to having nude pictures taken of them or having their private parts touched by security personnel in a way that law enforcement officers cannot do without having a warrant? Are Americans so uninformed of the ineffectiveness of the scanners and the physical patdown that they will believe this makes them somehow safer? Are Americans so unaware of how these issues are handled in other parts of the world that they blindly accept what is going on here?
What’s happening in the US is nothing more than one more step to removing people’s personal dignity and infringing on their right to privacy. Rights aside, everyone is up in arms when the RIAA and MPAA start treating their customers as criminals filing lawsuits for people who share copyrighted songs and videos on the Internet. But here is the government, treating paying customers of airlines worse than criminals under arrest by law enforcement officials.
Even worse, although TSA says the scanners have been pronounced safe by the FDA, the Center for Devices and Radiological Health, the National Institute for Standards and Technology, and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, some experts have pointed out the potential health risks that they could pose, especially for repeated exposure. No one should be forced unnecessarily to undergo a procedure that could pose such a health risk.
When it comes to light that terrorists can pass bomb materials by hiding them in body cavities, which don’t show up on the scanner, will the physical pat-down include an invasive search of these orifices? This is the only logical next step to such madness. Will people willingly submit to protological or gynecological exam before getting on a plane? How would you feel if your husband, wife, mother, father, daughter or son had to be touched in this way just to get on a plane to go on a business trip, take a vacation or visit a relative. Is this right?
Has it come to this and how did we get here? It’s hard to ignore the recent reports on insiders who profit from the sale of these scanners. It’s also logical to think that when the initial reaction to using the scanners was so negative, those who stood to benefit might be worried that the scanners would be discontinued and orders to equip all US airports cancelled. Then they probably wondered how to change the situation to protect their investment by convincing people to use them.
Since the effectiveness of the scanners at catching explosives isn’t convincing and several incidents have been reported regarding leaked scanner photos, it’s tempting to think that these folks might have simply decided to make the alternative option worse than the scanner. Since people were willing to accept a pat-down, perhaps if that pat-down included touching people in intimate places, they’d rather go through the scanner instead, and the scanner contracts would be saved. Now since those investing in the scanners have strong connections to the government, how hard would it be for them to convince the TSA to change their procedure? This sounds a bit like a conspiracy theory, but the interpretation is corroborated by Goldberg’s blog post.
I think this is close to a violation of the Fourth Amendment. The Bill of Rights protects citizens from “unreasonable searches and seizures.” If the procedure described above isn’t unreasonable, I can’t imagine what would be. Of course, many will simply say that being able to fly on a commercial airliner is not a “right,” so people are free to use some other mode of transportation if they don’t agree. Many people are doing just that, but it fails to take into account the obligations and norms of modern society. Air travel is just the only viable choice for many people. If they can’t travel they’ll have to give up their jobs, or renounce visiting their families.
But what choice do we have, people will ask. We want to be safe when we’re flying. Many have pointed out more effective security procedures in other countries, procedures that don’t involve violating people’s dignity with nude photos or touching of genitals. Israel is one example that is held up, and this article describes some of their procedures, although people I know who have flown to Israel found the experience more time-consuming than indicated. As the article points out, to effectively protect against terrorist attacks at airports or on planes will require investments, but these investments will be in training of qualified people, in multiple levels of surveillance at airports, and such measures have little potential to line the pockets of those who wish to profit from the “opportunity” of winning lucrative contracts for technological devices.
In short, the evidence suggests that these people are making personal profit from ineffective security measures that do nothing more than take advantage of the understandable desire of people to feel safe. So not only are they stripping people of their dignity, they’re taking advantage of fear and lack of information for personal gain.
Recent reports indicate that lawmakers are starting to take the problem seriously, but earlier today, President Obama at a news conference at the Nato Summit in Portugal maintained the view that the procedures were necessary, while expressing understanding for passenger’s discomfort with the searches.
So where does this leave us? Where does it stop? I don’t know, but I hope more people will take this encroachment on civil liberties seriously.
For my next post, I’ll be returning to something more in keeping with the focus of the blog. I’m planning a few more posts about search and metadata. In the meantime, if you’d like to read more about the airport scanning controversy, there’s lots’s of good information out there. Here’s a list of some other articles I’ve seen.
You can also find information from