Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Airport Body Scanners: Yet Another Indignity, Privacy Violation

Everybody who has ever dropped by this blog probably has read a post of mine about these new airport body scanners that essentially see through clothing, producing images of digitally naked passengers. I don't want to reinvent the wheel today, so to find out most everything you need to know about them check out my article "The Politics of Fear and Whole Body Imaging" (from January 2010), or check out any of my past three posts on the subject, here, here, and here.

For the most part my focus has been on (see my former posts for answers to these questions) A. whether being viewed essentially naked in itself is a violation of privacy, B. whether these scanners actually make us "safer", C. whether the irrational fears of a terrorist attack warrant such a privacy invasion, D. whether these images are actually protected and won't be somehow shared or saved, and E. what forces and interests have so much to gain from pushing this ever expanding surveillance state, with ever more threats and security technologies?

But one topic I've only just begun to hone in on, and which the Boston Herald article from yesterday brings to light even further, is the pat down, body search "option" for those that refuse to go through the whole body imaging machines.

Now, before I get to the article detailing this new, and aggressive form of body searching being utilized by the Transportation Security Administration, let me re-post three comments by readers of this blog about their experience of trying to take the "pat down option" that tuned me into this potential additional problem.


I flew out of Indianapolis last Friday. (Indy has had these scanners since before last Christmas.) I politely stated I'd rather not go through the body scanner, and was told I would have to "go through special screening." I thought the body scanners were OPTIONAL? So wouldn't I go through the NORMAL screening, and not "special" screening?

I went through the metal detector and was told to stand to the side and wait. The male screener asked for a female screener for a pat-down. From the other side of the machine, the female screener ROLLED HER EYES and said loudly "Oh boy." Her sarcasm was opaque.

The pat-down that followed ensured I wouldn't need my annual Pap Smear.

I am convinced the TSA would simply prefer we go through these untested, unregulated, unsafe machines for their own convenience. They are determined to make the other "screening options" so invasive that we might find the body scanner "safer" than being molested.

I will never step through one of those machines. Not EVER. There is nothing they have done to prove I can trust these machines medically, or them with my privacy. On the off hand, I don't find it optional to fly. My family is 2,000 miles away, and I have to move with military orders (husband is active duty). So what is my option? I MUST fly. It isn't a choice, and I'm not the only one who sees it that way.

And another women commented:

I am a young female who flew out of Heathrow yesterday, on a 45 minute flight to Newcaste upon Tyne. I was randomly (I say randomly,I saw the young male security guards pointing as they chose me) selected for the body scan. I have read all about these machines and had decided I would never go through one, but when I refused I was told I would not be able to travel.

I was visibly upset and did not want to do this scan, I feel it is a total invasion of my privacy. I am a businesswoman and travel regularly, but something about this invasive process really got to me. Well I had no option but to do the scan, but this morning I am still thinking about it and worrying that I will be subjected to this every time I fly. Privacy, health? It just all seems so over the top for the normal traveller like myself.

And another woman commented:

I am 33 weeks pregnant and just flew from Chicago to Orange County last night. At Chicago, I was forced to go through the imaging machine. I asked to go through the metal detector but was scolded by all of the TSA agents present that I had to go through the scanning machine. I asked if this was an xray machine and they said that it wasn't, but IT IS!! I feel violated and now I am worried about the effects of the radiation on my unborn child.

AS you can see, we're seeing a pattern here...one that appears to be a very concerted effort by airport security to force people to go through the body scanners...be it through making the alternative body search even less appetizing, shaming and embarrassing those that refuse, or simply trying to say that they have to, when the don't.

Well, it appears that those commenting on my blog were simply giving us a forewarning for what appears to be official policy.

The Boston Herald Reports:

Logan airport security just got more up close and personal as federal screeners launched a more aggressive palms-first, slide-down body search technique that has renewed the debate over privacy vs. safety.

The new procedure - already being questioned by the ACLU - replaces the Transportation Security Administration’s former back-of-the-hand patdown.

Boston is one of only two cities in which the new touchy-feely frisking is being implemented as a test before a planned national rollout. The other is Las Vegas.

“We’re all for good effective security measures,” American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts spokesman Christopher Ott said. “But, in general,
we’re concerned about this seemingly constant erosion of privacy, and we wonder whether or not it’s really going to be effective.

“Accepting these kinds of searches may keep people safer in some situations, but not in every situation, and we’re encouraging people to stop and think about what is the right balance between privacy and security,” Ott said.


Previously, TSA screeners used patdown motions of their hands to search passengers over their clothes, switching to the backs of their hands over certain ’sensitive’ body areas, such as the torso.

But now the searches will be done using all front-of-the-hand sliding motions over greater areas of passengers’ bodies, including sensitive areas. “The pat down just (because I) was wearing jewelry seems like overkill,” one woman wrote on Logan’s Twitter account yesterday.

As I've written here before, aside from the fact that you're FAR MORE LIKELY to be hit by lightning than killed in a terrorist attack, or that these machines will simply change the tactic of any would be "terrorist" (and its debatable if they work anyway), there's also the consumer angle and the growing number of indignities we are being subjected to in the name of "safety".

If our two choices are being digitally strip searched, or aggressively felt up, then perhaps a growing consumer backlash against the machines may take shape. I should also note, early polling - and this should be no surprise when considering all the fear mongering that goes on in this country around terrorism and airports - indicated public support for these scanners in the range of 80%. Of course, that was before passengers started being more regularly subjected to them, and more information regarding the variety of threats they pose have come to light.

At the end of the day, if the flying public revolts against these scanners it will be monumentally more difficult to justify their exorbitant costs. That's why the global public revolt going on right now is hopeful, be it concerns regarding the sheer personal violation people feel to be viewed naked, to concerns over potential health "side effects", to the time time-consuming component, to the body search alternative, or to the simple fact that they don't really work and aren't needed.

I'm certain this story, and debate, isn't over...

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