Friday, April 23, 2010

Privacy and Consumer Groups Challenge Body Scanners

Unfortunately I haven't been able to post here for over a week (reasons I won't even go into), and couldn't for almost 10 days before that due to vacation (had the chore of swimming with dolphins and whales in the Sea of, work, work :).

So, I feel I'm really behind here and there's so many things I'd like to get to. But, the one I have to single out today is the consumer and privacy coalition - which we (Consumer Federation of California) are a member of - challenging the use of, and investment in, the airport 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 being "safe" from government and corporate 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 coalition petition urging Janet Napolitano
to stop purchasing these machines until there's comprehensive public hearings on them (which is CRITICAL if we are to get a chance to make more Americans aware of the full story), 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.

Now let's get to the article William Fisher of IPS:

Last year, the groups asked DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano to give the public an opportunity to comment on the proposal to expand the body scanner programme. She rejected the request. Since that time, the groups charge that evidence has emerged that "the privacy safeguards do not work and that the devices are not very effective".


The petition states that the body scanners are not effective and are not designed to detect the type of powdered explosive that was involved in the Dec. 25, 2009 "underwear bomber" incident. The petition also states that the privacy safeguards do not work and that the body scanners violate religious beliefs, principally among Muslims.

Despite concerns over costs and benefits, privacy, reliability and safety of airport body scanners, the federal government plans to deploy 500 advanced imaging technology units this ear, roll out 500 more in 2011 and operate a total of 1,800 units by 2014, according to recent testimony last to the House Transportation Security and Infrastructure subcommittee.


A signatory to the petition, Chip Pitts, president of the Bill of Rights Protection Committee, told IPS, "The full body scanners fall into the same misleading 'techno-utopian' mindset that focuses on the symptoms rather than the causes of terrorism and assumes that some new surveillance technology will somehow eliminate all risk of terrorist incidents."

"What happens instead is that companies push for and the government buys technology that merely fights the last war, produces new intrusions to fundamental freedoms like privacy, the presumption of innocence, and freedom from religious or other discrimination, while yielding only faux security instead of the genuine security promised," he said.

"In the meantime, as Huxley warned in Brave New World, the population becomes used to the new surveillance methods (such as these digital strip searches) that normalise invasions of dignity and serve mainly to enhance government control of the citizenry."


The group also contends that documents obtained by EPIC under the Freedom of Information Act "also appear to refute the agency's claims that the devices do not store and record images and that the public does not object to the programme."


The petitioners charge that "Deployment of Full Body Scanners in U.S. airports, as currently proposed, violates the U.S. Constitution, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the Privacy Act of 1974 (Privacy Act), and the Administrative Procedures Act (APA)."

The petition says, "The FBS programme effectively subjects all air travelers to unconstitutionally intrusive searches that are disproportionate and for which the TSA lacks any suspicion of wrongdoing. The FBS Programme also violates the RFRA because it requires those of sincerely held religious beliefs to be subject to offensive intrusions by government officials."

Click here to read the article in its entirety.

Being that I'm a part of this petition, I will most certainly keep anyone interested in this issue up to speed on this blog...

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