Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Travelers File Suits Against Body Scanners As Their Use Expands

I want to do a quick update today on the progress of the friendly little digital strip searches that are coming to an airport near you. I speak of course of what has been coined as "Whole-Body-Imaging". As I wrote in my article "The Politics of Fear and "Whole-Body-Imaging", these full-body scanners use one of two technologies - millimeter wave sensors or backscatter x-rays - to see through clothing, producing images of naked passengers.

As I lay out in detail, there are MANY reasons to oppose the widespread use of these scanners, from the obvious, privacy, to the less so, they won't make us any safer. In fact, if you define the word "safe" as also including the concept of "safe" from government intrusiveness and fear peddling, than I would argue it makes us less so, not more.

A Review: Why Airport Body Scanners Should be Opposed

Before I get to the increasing use of these scanners, the growing number of customer complaints against them, and the efforts being made by privacy advocates to halt their implementation altogether until several health, safety and privacy issues are resolved, I want to just quickly highlight the main arguments against their use.

Before embracing this latest "terror fix", we should consider the larger context at work here: for every specific tactic we target with a new, expensive, and often burdensome security apparatus, the terrorist's tactics themselves will change.

Risks can be reduced for a given target, but not eliminated. If we strip searched every single passenger at every airport in the country, terrorists would try to bomb shopping malls or movie theaters.

Before we all run for the hills screaming "the terrorists are coming", willfully give up our civil liberties and freedoms, support wars on countries 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 while the odds you'll be killed by a terrorist on a plane over 10 years is 10 million to 1.

Does this sound like a threat worthy of increasing the already long list of airline passenger indignities? Isn't suffering through longer and longer lines while being shoeless, beltless, waterless, and nail clipper-less enough? Now we've got to be digitally strip searched too?

Then there are the privacy concerns regarding how images could be stored...and just the basic guttural reaction of "screw you I'm not letting you see me naked for no reason!" argument.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center, a public interest research group, published documents in January revealing that the machines can record, store and transmit passenger scans.

Are we really to believe the government won't allow these devices to record any data when the easy "go to" excuse for doing so will be the need to gather and store evidence? What about the ability of some hacker in an airport lounge capturing the data using his wi-fi capable PC - and then filing it to a Flickr album, and then telling of its whereabouts on Twitter?

For these reasons, privacy advocates continue to argue for increased oversight, full disclosure for air travelers, and legal language to protect passengers and keep the TSA from changing policy down the road. Again, what's to stop the TSA from using clearer images or different technology later?

Is the loss of freedom, privacy, and quality of life a worthwhile trade-off for unproven protections from a terrorist threat that has a 1 in 10 million chance of killing someone over a ten year time period?

Could all this hype be just another way to sell more security technologies, soften us up for future wars, increased spending on the military, and the evisceration of our civil liberties?Walking through a whole-body scanner or taking a pat-down shouldn't be the only two options for citizens living in a free society.

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...The Bill of Rights extends beyond curbside check-in and if the government insists on using these invasive search techniques, it is imperative that there be vigorous oversight and regulation to protect our privacy. Before these body scanners become the status quo at America's airports, we need to ensure new security technologies are genuinely effective, rather than merely creating a false sense of security."

Number of Airports Using Scanners Increases as Customer Complaints Rise

The Homeland Security Department on Friday announced that it will expand the use of advanced imaging technology to 11 U.S. airports, thanks to $1 billion in Recovery Act funds. The TSA already has 40 units in 19 airports nationwide and expects to have an additional 450 deployed by the end of 2010.

The TSA plans to install close to 900 body scanners at airports around the U.S. by 2014. About 200 AIT scanners are expected to be deployed by the end of this year at a cost of $130,000 to $170,000 per device.

So the bad news is the government is moving full steam ahead. But, this is not to say there still isn't a vigorous opposition campaign underway. Documents obtained by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) show that complaints have been lodged with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) over the use of whole-body scanners at U.S. airports, particularly related to lack of instructions and information on alternatives.

Computerworld reports:

More than two-dozen complaints that were filed by travelers subjected to whole-body scans over the past year or so were included in a document obtained by EPIC as the result of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.

The 51 pages of documents show that travelers were often not fully informed about the scans or what the process involved. Some complained about a lack of instructions or signage regarding the scanning machines, while others said they were not informed about the pat-down alternative available to those who don't want to be scanned. Travelers also expressed concern about their privacy being invaded, of feeling humiliated, of radiation risks to pregnant women and of children being subjected to the scans.

The letters belie the TSA's claims about the disclosure policies related to the use of the technology and of the general level of concern related to its use, said Ginger McCall, staff counsel at EPIC. "The TSA has been reassuring people that travelers will be made aware of what these machines are and of the alternatives that are available," McCall said. The complaints suggest otherwise and appear to show less support for the technology than the TSA has let on, she said.


Privacy advocacy groups have claimed that the use of such scanners is tantamount to doing a strip search of air travelers. Security analysts and even the Government Accountability Office meanwhile have called for a thorough review of the effectiveness of the technology in day-to-day operations. Some have expressed concern that whole-body scanners will be ineffective in detecting explosives hidden in body cavities. Such concerns have already prompted a three-month review of the technology in Europe.

Click here for the rest of the article.

I go back to this quote a lot, but I think its important to remember everytime we have this larger debate over privacy versus security. Bruce Schneier, author of Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly About Security in an Uncertain World, sums up the false choice perfectly:"If you set up the false dichotomy, of course people will choose security over privacy -- especially if you scare them first. But it's still a false dichotomy. There is no security without privacy. And liberty requires both security and privacy. The famous quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin reads: "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." It's also true that those who would give up privacy for security are likely to end up with neither.”

I would also point you to Dr. Amster, a professor of peace studies at Prescott College and the executive director of the Peace & Justice Studies Association:

And then there are the obvious matters of privacy and dignity. One need not be a constitutional scholar or privacy-rights advocate to appreciate the implications of conducting such invasive de facto "strip searches" on a widespread scale. ...The New York Times further noted that "others say that the technology is no security panacea, and that its use should be carefully controlled because of the risks to privacy, including the potential for its ghostly naked images to show up on the Internet." Indeed, as Baltimore Sun columnist Susan Reimer intoned:

"They say these full-body screening images - in which I am pretty sure we are naked - are immediately erased, but I don't believe them for a minute. Either somebody is keeping them on the hard drive to protect himself in case some terrorist gets by on his watch, or some enterprising guy is going to be selling Britney Spears' body scan to TMZ for a hundred thousand bucks. I mean this is America, land of the irrepressible entrepreneurial spirit."

Absent clear and enforceable limitations, it seems likely that such scenarios will ensue....Despite being known as a fairly Puritanical people in many respects - at least in terms of what constitutes "public decency" and the like - it seems that Americans perhaps are more permissive in their sense of decorum than we have been led to believe. Is it still voyeurism when the subject willingly desires to be watched? Must security and privacy exist in tension, or can they be fruitfully reconciled? Is constant surveillance becoming the baseline of our lives, and if so, who is watching the watchers? With the proliferation of public cameras, digital recorders, webcams, cellphone cameras and, now, terahertz scanners, we will be confronted with the implications of these technologies for the foreseeable future. The fact that our collective fears seem to be the leading edge of the debate doesn't bode particularly well for reasoned decision-making and the eventual utilization of new technologies for emancipation rather than subjugation.

And in the End …

The matter of full-body scanners presents a critical cultural referendum on basic questions of freedom and autonomy. The circumstances under which the issue is being presented - a climate of fear instilled by a well-hyped reminder of the shared trauma of 9/11 - make it almost impossible to have confidence in a sound and sober resolution. Moreover, the primary players behind the use of these technologies are imbricated within the workings of a growing military-industrial complex that continues to pervade more aspects of our lives. This watershed moment in the public dialogue about security and privacy is framed by an increasing militarization of everyday life in America, as indicated by a recollection of the loci in which companies like Rapiscan operate - namely, "at airports, government and corporate buildings, correctional and prison facilities, postal facilities, military zones, sea ports and border crossings." This list could easily expand to include schools, hospitals, malls, arenas, banks, stores, and more. Now is the moment to rein it in while we still have a window of self-determination in which to do so.

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