Wednesday, May 20, 2009

"Whole Body Imaging" - Get Ready to be Creeped Out

"Creepy" is about as apt a description as I can think of for the "Whole Body Imaging" technology - a device that photographs American air travelers as if stripped naked -currently being utilized at some of our nation's airports (and a lot more likely to come).

Here's a question: Did you know that if you're planning to fly soon you may also be digitally strip searched by airport employees? Up until now, the machines were mostly confined to being a voluntary alternative to being patted-down by an agent. However, several airports nationwide have already begun to mandate that all passengers pass through the high-tech machines.

Here's another question: Did you know that the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has been trying to convince the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) for years that this gross violation of privacy isn't acceptable in a free society?
Unfortunately, the TSA has recently announced its plans to increase this technology's usage - rather than reduce - by requiring all air passengers be "screened" (i.e. "virtually" strip searched without notice) without exception.

This gives me a little pause, considering that the USA Today reported a TSA official as saying, "You can actually see the sweat on someone's back". But, as is so often the case with these kinds of technologies, the concerns go far deeper than what the technology itself does with the data it collects, but rather, what happens to that data once collected.

Before I get to CNN's article on this topic, let me direct you to the Privacy Coalition's campaign - led by EPIC - to suspend the use of "Whole Body Imaging" altogether. The campaign responds to a policy reversal by the TSA which would make the digital strip search mandatory, instead of voluntary as originally announced.

EPIC and others have, and will continue to argue that there are inadequate safeguards to prevent the misuse of these body images, and are urging Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to suspend the program and allow for public comment.

CNN reports:

"People need to know what's happening, with no sugar-coating and no spinning," said Coney, who is also coordinator of the Privacy Coalition, a conglomerate of 42 member organizations. She expects other groups to sign on in the push for the technology's suspension until privacy safeguards are in place. Right now, without regulations on what the Transportation Security Administration does with this technology, she said, "We don't have the policy to hold them to what they say. They're writing their own rule book at this point."


The system uses a pair of security officers. The one working the machine never sees the image, which appears on a computer screen behind closed doors elsewhere; and the remotely located officer who sees the image never sees the passenger.

As further protection, a passenger's face is blurred and the image as a whole "resembles a fuzzy negative," said TSA's Lee. The officers monitoring images aren't allowed to bring cameras, cell phones or any recording device into the room, and the computers have been programmed so they have "zero storage capability" and images are "automatically deleted," she added.

But this is of little comfort to Coney, the privacy advocate with EPIC, a public interest research group in Washington. She said she's seen whole-body images captured by similar technology dating back to 2004 that were much clearer than what's represented by the airport machines. "What they're showing you now is a dumbed-down version of what this technology is capable of doing," she said. "Having blurry images shouldn't blur the issue."


Coney said she and other privacy advocates want more oversight, full disclosure for air travelers, and legal language to protect passengers and keep TSA from changing policy down the road. For example, she wants to know what's to stop TSA from using clearer images or different technology later. The computers can't store images now, but what if that changes?


The option of walking through a whole-body scanner or taking a pat-down shouldn't be the final answer, said Chris Calabrese, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union. "A choice between being groped and being stripped, I don't think we should pretend those are the only choices," he said. "People shouldn't be humiliated by their government" in the name of security, nor should they trust that the images will always be kept private. "Screeners at LAX [Los Angeles International Airport]," he speculated, "could make a fortune off naked virtual images of celebrities."

Bruce Schneier, an internationally recognized security technologist, said whole-body imaging technology "works pretty well," privacy rights aside. But he thinks the financial investment was a mistake. In a post-9/11 world, he said, he knows his position isn't "politically tenable," but he believes money would be better spent on intelligence-gathering and investigations.

Once again this argument seems to be wedged right between the clash of our society's insatiable desire to embrace just about any new technological innovation with the ongoing fight to protect the individuals right to privacy.

This issue also seems to fall into another common narrative for those of us that work in the privacy protection arena: Assuming we can't stop the usage of certain new technologies doesn't the public at least have the right to the strictest of oversight, a vigorous, open, and transparent public debate, and ironclad regulations in place?

I would echo the argument made by EPIC director Marc Rotenberg when he said: "One of the big issues is that most people don't understand that these devices are essentially digital cameras. We don't object to the scanning. The problem is that it is too easy for the TSA to record and store images."

The jury is still out on this issue...making it all the more important to check out the Privacy Coalition campaign website.

Click here to read the rest of the CNN article.

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