Tuesday, January 12, 2010

TSA Caught Lying About Privacy Concerns Associated with "Whole-Body-Imaging" Scanners

Well that sure didn't take long! Thanks to the work of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), with help from the Freedom of Information Act, we now know for a fact that Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officials have been misleading the public by claiming that their "Whole-Body-Imaging scanners at airports cannot store or send their graphic images.

For a whole lot more information on the subject of these body scanners check out my recent article in the California Progress Report entitled "The Politics of Fear and Whole-Body-Imaging".

Now, back to yesterday's revelations: According to the 2008 documents obtained by EPIC, the TSA specified that the machines must have image storage and sending abilities when in "test mode."

Even taking into account the "test mode" caveat, these documents are contrary to the representations that have been made in recent weeks by TSA officials that the machines have "zero storage capability". On the TSA's own Web site - in an effort to assure passengers their privacy is protected - it specifically says "the system has no way to save, transmit or print the image."

Now we know that these devices DO include the ability to store, record and transfer images of passengers screened at U.S. airports, including hard disk storage and USB integration and Ethernet connectivity. According to EPIC, the device's specifications allow the TSA to manipulate 10 variable privacy settings, with the ability to dial privacy protections up, or down.

It goes without saying that these revelations raise significant privacy and security concerns.

Also according to EPIC, the TSA's technical specifications for the body scanners and its language in vendor contracts show that the systems also have a category of generic superusers who have the ability to disable privacy functions at any time. And being that these systems are based on Windows XP Embedded with Ethernet connectivity they are also subject to the same security risks associated with Windows.

In an article in Computerworld, EPIC's Executive Director Marc Rotenberg makes some key points to consider: "That requirement leaves open the possibility the machines - which can see beneath people's clothing -- can be abused by TSA insiders and hacked by outsiders. I don't think the TSA has been forthcoming with the American public about the true capability of these devices. They've done a bunch of very slick promotions where they show people -- including journalists -- going through the devices. And then they reassure people, based on the images that have been produced, that there's not any privacy concerns. But if you look at the actual technical specifications and you read the vendor contracts, you come to understand that these machines are capable of doing far more than the TSA has let on. The TSA should suspend further deployment of the machines until privacy and security questions are resolved."

As for the TSA's "just trust us" defense, I'm not convinced, not by a long shot, and not after they've been caught red handed in a lie. When they say for instance, that officers in the remote screening rooms are prohibited from bringing in cellphones, cameras or any device with a camera, I would just say, so? Aren't rules meant to be broken? Or again, are we being asked to just "trust them"?

Somehow I can envision TSA agents - gasp! - without the proper supervision figuring out ways to capture and send images - administration policy or no. How much would an image of Angelina Jolie be worth to an electronic rag like TMZ?

AS I layout in my article on this subject, privacy is just one the concerns a lot of us have. There's also the wasting of resources on an unproven technology, the increasing deterioration of our civil liberties, the growing number of indignities faced by airline passengers in the "terror age", the moneyed interests pushing for these scanners (and other "terror saviors"), and the more general irrational fear utilized by elected officials, the media, and the military industrial complex (among others) to cull the American public into accepting such invasions of privacy, future wars, increased spending on the military...and then believing that somehow these things actually make them safer (from a threat that's a fraction of that posed by being hit by lightning).

Unfortunately, as I also noted last week, the power of fear on the human mind is difficult to overcome. I regret to report the findings of a USA Today/Gallup poll conducted last week that proves this point: 78% of those surveyed said they approve of full body scans on airline passengers. About 67% said they would not feel uncomfortable if they were to undergo a full body scan at an airline security checkpoint.

Worse, racial and ethnic profiling of passengers at airports received support from over half (51 percent) of those surveyed, with only thirty-eight percent saying profiling was not justified.

With that bit of bad news, I want to point you to an article that I found by Gavin MacFadyen, the Legal Columnist for Troy Media, entitled "Increased security measures a blow to our personal liberty." He makes about as articulate and convincing a case against the use of these kinds of scanners, and other security measure infringements, as one will find.

MacFadyen writes:

The more frightening fact is that a right, once abrogated or surrendered, is never fully realized again. The reality of life post-9/11 is that, in the name of collective security, we have been forced to, and largely willingly abdicated, personal privacy. The reasonableness of this in the face of terrorist threats is not really the question because, like a kaleidoscope, that interpretation depends on who is holding it up to the light.

Now, a failed Christmas Day bombing of a Detroit-bound plane has once again allowed for airports and border crossings to become a kind of twilight zone of totalitarianism. Fundamental rights to be secure in your person; to not be subject to unreasonable searches or capricious detentions absent cause, seem to have vanished quicker than your unattended luggage.


The 1990’s saw two terrorist attacks on American soil – the WTC bombing of 1993 and the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995. Both involved the use of a rented Ryder truck. So, naturally, to keep us all safe, all those renting vehicles immediately became subject to intense questioning, behavioral analysis, pat downs and strip searches. Right? Wrong.

The absurdity of that response would be apparent on its face. Why then have we become so willing to surrender without a fight our basic liberties and human dignity at an airport or border crossing?Technology has made violations so unobtrusive that we forget how we would react were there not that barrier between those of us being watched and those doing the watching. Most major airports will be equipped with full body scanners in the very near future which allows for the indignity of what amounts to a strip search without all the fuss and bother of removing clothing.

It has long been the squawk of those who care little for personal liberty that if one “has nothing to hide then one has nothing to fear.” These are the same people for whom a constitution is nothing more than a placemat: nice to bring out at parties (don’t spill anything on it!) but really having no function other than decorative to impress the Soviets if they ever come to dinner again.The more frightening fact is that a right, once abrogated or surrendered, is never fully realized again. The wonder is not that it has happened – that’s what governments do. The wonder is that it is happening with, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, not a bang but with nary a whimper of real protest.


The paradox of civil liberties is that they initially arise and are first established out of a population feeling an unwarranted and intolerable intrusion upon their private lives. They are then perpetually subject to being defended from similar intrusions – undertaken this time, not by the authority against whom a population revolted – but by the very structure put in place to supplant and guarantee those hard-won freedoms.The perpetual tug of war between the individual and the state depends on vigilant assertion and stubborn insistence on civil liberties.

Those rights are no more acutely in danger than when that individual must battle, not only the state, but a significant portion of fellow citizens who see no harm in surrendering certain liberties in the face of a real or imagined threat.

Click here to read the rest of the article...and stay tuned...

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