Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Virtual Strip Search Technology Limited by House

Now, when I was briefed on this program a few weeks back by a representative from "Electronic Privacy Information Center", I was warned that what I was about to hear might be a little "Creepy". To this day, I think that's as good a description as one will find regarding "Whole Body Imaging" technologies. These devices photograph American air travelers as if stripped naked, and are currently being utilized at numerous airports across the nation (and a lot more likely to come unless someone stops them).

It was less than two weeks ago when a privacy coalition, including the ACLU, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, Gun Owners of America, and the Consumer Federation of America sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano asking her to "suspend the program until the privacy and security risks are fully evaluated."

In particular, the letter stated: "We the undersigned privacy, consumer rights, religious, and civil rights organizations are writing to you regarding the Transportation Security Administration's announced plan to deploy Whole Body Imaging as the primary means of screening airline passengers in the United States. We strongly object to this change in policy and urge you to suspend the program until the privacy and security risks are fully evaluated."

As I wrote in a post a few weeks back, "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.

Now, considering that the USA Today reported a TSA official as saying, "You can actually see the sweat on someones back", I think a lot of Americans may not like the idea of their virtually naked body receiving such a thorough "analysis" everytime they board a plane.

And, as is 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.

The good news to report today is that the House of Representatives - by a 310-118 vote -approved legislation that curbs the growing use of these"whole body imagine" devices at airport checkpoints.

CNET News has the story:

Privacy groups say that the low-energy backscatter X-rays allow "a highly realistic image to be reconstructed... of the traveler's nude form" that's "detailed enough to show genitalia." The TSA, on the other hand, says it has made improvements to its scanning technology including a "privacy algorithm" that will provide the operator with vaguer outlines of body parts.


Chaffetz's amendment says that whole body imaging "may not be used" as the primary method of passenger screening, and that passengers have the right to refuse it and "shall be offered a pat-down search" as an alternative. It also prohibits the storage or transmission of the whole-body images after they're no longer necessary for screening...Now the bill heads to the Senate, which could choose to preserve or strip out the privacy amendments.

A couple key points for everyone to understand about this issue, as enumerated by EPIC, are the following:

  • Unlike many federal programs, the TSA has gone forward with the Whole Body Imaging program without any public comment. In their letter to Sec. Napolitano, the organizations called for a 90-day process to allow the public to comment on the agency's proposal.
  • The TSA, a part of the Homeland Security agency, initially claimed that these systems are necessary for airport security and that they will not save the images of American air passengers and that these scanners would be used only for passengers who had raised suspicions. The agency then reversed itself, and now advocates using these new scanners as a replacement for metal detectors as the primary screening device for all passengers.
  • There should be a public rulemaking process to determine whether current privacy protection measures are effective and adequate.
  • The TSA should suspend the use of these scanners as primary screening and inform travelers of their rights to other screening techniques, such as a physical pat down or search of carry-on bags.
  • The TSA needs to evaluate the medical and health implications of exposure to this technology.

The bill now heads to the Senate, which could choose to preserve or strip out the privacy amendments. Stay tuned...

Click here to read the rest of CNET article.

No comments: