Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Fearmongering versus Reality on Whole Body Imaging Scanners

I wanted to follow up on yesterday's post about the "terror hysteria" that's echoing across the media and out of the mouths of politicians in response to the attempted terror attack on an airline flight. Thankfully we do have a few voices of reason in the mainstream, corporate media. One of course being Rachel Maddow, as evidenced in her extremely enlightening interview with security expert Bruce Schneier.

As I pointed out yesterday, before we all run to hide in our closets, gladly give up our civil liberties and freedoms, support wars on nation's that did nothing to us, and sign off on wasting HUGE amounts of money on ineffectual security systems, consider this: Your chances of getting hit by lightning in one year is 500,000 to 1. Your chances of being killed by a terrorist on a plane over 10 years is 10 million to 1.

So first, let's scrap the whole meme that we should live in fear and that we must give up our constitutional rights in order to be safe from a threat that is a fraction of that posed by lightning. Once we have scrapped that fear, now we can discuss, rationally, specific security proposals being pushed by a variety of fearmongering politicians and security industry spokespeople.

Namely, for today's purposes, the use of "Whole Body Image" technologies in airports. Now, I also wrote about this in yesterdays post, as well as in more detail here.

Briefly, the technology photographs American air travelers as if stripped naked. As I wrote months ago, this gives me a little pause, considering that the USA Today reported a TSA official as saying, "You can actually see the sweat on someones back".

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 today's article on the new clamor for this technology, I want to rehash a few key points I made in my first post on this subject months ago.

Privacy advocates simply 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, 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, as is the case in some airports now. As the ACLU pointed out, "A choice between being groped and being stripped, I don't think we should pretend those are the only choices. 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 could make a fortune off naked virtual images of celebrities."

There's also another important case to make against the spread of this technology to every airport in every city: is it the most effective use of our money? Its an incredibly expensive tool, and most security experts - like Bruce Schneier believe money is better spent on intelligence-gathering and investigations.

Now to today's Sacramento Bee:

In a battle that pits privacy against security, the failed attempt to blow up Northwest Flight 253 last week has revived debate in Congress over the use of whole-body imaging technology to screen airline passengers. The machines, which cost about $170,000 each, are being used for screening in 19 airports around the country, including San Francisco and Los Angeles. But they have not been approved for widespread use.


While privacy groups strongly oppose the idea, it picked up a key endorsement over the weekend from Connecticut independent Sen. Joe Lieberman, the head of the Senate's Homeland Security Committee. "Those privacy concerns, which are frankly mild, have to fall in the face of the ability of these machines to detect material like this explosive on this individual," Lieberman said in an interview on "Fox News Sunday."

As testing of the technology continues, the Transportation Security Administration said the machines are being used for primary screening at six U.S. airports: San Francisco, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Miami, Albuquerque, N.M., and Tulsa, Okla. Thirteen other airports are using them for secondary screening: Los Angeles, Phoenix, Ronald Reagan Washington National, Atlanta, Baltimore, Denver, Dallas-Fort Worth, Jacksonville and Tampa, Fla., Indianapolis, Raleigh-Durham, N.C., Richmond, Va., and Detroit.


Last June, the House voted 310-118 to approve a measure introduced by Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah to prohibit the widespread use of whole-body imaging technology as a primary source of airport screening. The measure is pending in the Senate and likely to be debated in the new year.

McClintock, who co-sponsored the legislation, said the machines are so invasive that they can detect the difference between a nickel and a dime in a person's pocket. McClintock called it "a virtual strip search" and said security officials can use less invasive methods to detect explosives, such as bomb-sniffing dogs. He said the Christmas Day incident raises questions of why a person on a terrorist watch list had been allowed to enter the country and why U.S. authorities had not revoked his visa. He said whole-body imaging should be used only in conditions where there is probable cause to assume someone might be carrying explosives.


In a background paper, the ACLU said that government officials are "essentially taking a naked picture of air passengers" and that air travelers should not be required to display highly personal details of their bodies as a prerequisite to boarding a plane. "Those images reveal not only our private body parts, but also intimate medical details like colostomy bags," the ACLU said. "That degree of examination amounts to a significant – and for some people humiliating – assault on the essential dignity of passengers that citizens in a free nation should not have to tolerate."

Click here to read more.

My summation of this debate remains the same as back in June: 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?

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