Thursday, October 21, 2010

Pilot Protests "Digital Strip Search" Machines and How to Opt-Out Yourself

Just about everybody who reads this blog even on an occasional basis knows I have covered the issue of airport body scanners (also known as "whole body imaging") extensively here. Before I get to two very interesting articles today, one on an airline pilot being punished for refusing to go through one himself and the other about a journalist's first hand experience choosing "option b", let me go over a few of the basics.

Most important to understand is that these machines essentially allow airport security to see through your clothing, producing images of digitally naked passengers. Now, I don't want to rehash all that I have written on this subject before because there's a lot I want to get to today, so to find out most everything you need to know about these machines and their privacy implications (among other issues with them), check out my article "The Politics of Fear and Whole Body Imaging" (from January 2010), or check out some of my past posts on the subject, here, here, and here.

To date, my focus has primarily been on
(see my former posts for answers to these questions):
A. whether being viewed essentially naked just to board a plane is in itself a violation of privacy,
B. whether these scanners actually make us "safer",
C. whether the irrational fears of a terrorist attack warrant the increasing encroachments on our civil liberties and quality of life,
D. whether these images are actually protected and won't be somehow shared or saved, E. what forces and corporate interests have the most to gain from pushing this ever expanding surveillance state, and,
F. what does all this mean for the airline passenger - particularly if he/she chooses NOT TO be subjected to these machines (i.e. aggressive pat down)?

As I mentioned above, my past posts answer these questions in detail, and let's just say in each case its much worse than you probably could imagine. I'll summarize some of this at the end of today's blog, but let's get to these two stories that I think add to this ongoing "debate".

First, the Memphis newspaper the Commercial Appeal covered a recent incident with no less than an airline pilot. Wayne Risher reports:

ExpressJet Airlines first officer Michael Roberts drew a line in the sand last Friday morning at Memphis International Airport security Checkpoint C. He left the airport without boarding a flight to his duty base in Houston, refusing a full-body scan and its alternative, a manual pat-down, by Transportation Security Administration

On Tuesday, Roberts, 35, was waiting to find out whether his protest would cost him his job. I'm not trying to throw down the gauntlet with the federal government per se," he said. "I just want to be able to go to work and not be harassed or molested without cause."

"I just kind of had to ask myself 'Where do I stand?' I'm just not comfortable being physically manhandled by a federal security agent every time I go to work." TSA spokesman Jon Allen, citing privacy considerations, wouldn't confirm that Roberts was the person who was turned away by airport police after refusing to comply with TSA security procedures. Roberts was wearing his pilot's uniform and identification at the time.


Roberts said he's not minimizing the importance of tight security to protect air travelers, but he said he doesn't believe TSA has the answer. "I have those (security) concerns as well, but I don't believe this approach is a necessary or effective way to mitigate the threat."

He called TSA a "make-work" jobs program combined with a feel-good effort "to give us a false sense of security to let us believe the folks in Washington are keeping us safe."

Click here to read more.

Before I comment on that, let's get to the article by Mike Adams from the magazine Natural News entitled "How to opt-out of the TSA's naked body scanners at the airport"(another issue some have with these machines is the potential health risks, which are unproven, but nonetheless worth notice). This is of particular interest to me because numerous women commented on a past blog post of mine on how people are treated if they choose to opt-out. Their stories are NOT REASSURING.

Adams, known as the Health Ranger writes:

I encountered my first airport naked body scanner while flying out of California today, and of course I decided to "opt out" of the scan. You do this by telling the blue-shirted TSA agents that you simply wish to opt out of the body scanner. Here's what happened after that:

A TSA agent told me to step to the side and stay put. He then proceeded to shout out loudly enough for all the other travelers and TSA agents to hear, "OPT OUT! OPT OUT!" This is no doubt designed to attract attention (or perhaps humiliation) to those who choose to opt out of the naked
body scanner. I saw no purpose for this verbal alert because the same TSA agent who was yelling this ultimately was the one who patted me down anyway.


Speaking of the naked body scanners, as I was having my crotch swept by the back of the hand of this TSA agent, I was observing other air travelers subjecting themselves to the naked body scanners. They were told to walk into the body scanner staging area and then hold their arms in the air in a pose as if they were under arrest. They were told to freeze in this position for several seconds (perhaps 10 seconds) during which they were being blasted with ionizing radiation that we all know contributes to cancer.

The TSA, of course, will tell you that these machines can't possibly contribute to cancer. But they said the same thing about mammograms, and we now know that mammograms are so harmful to women's health that they actually harm ten women for everyone one woman they help ( So I'm not exactly taking the U.S. government at its word that naked body scanner radiation is "harmless."

As these air travelers were being scanned, their naked body images were appearing on a screen somewhere, of course. Some TSA agent was examining the naked body shape and contours of all these people, and even though we were told by the TSA that the image viewing machines cannot store images, we have since learned that the machines actually do have the capability to store those images ( In addition, rogue TSA employees could simply use their cell phones to take snapshots of what they see on the screen. There are no doubt rules against such behavior, but it's bound to happen sooner or later.

Meanwhile, my own security
screening was proceeding fully clothed. I don't want to broadcast my naked butt cheeks on the TSA's graphic monitors, thank you very much!


The most fascinating part about this entire process was not the verbal broadcast of my opt out status, nor having my crotch swept by the latex-covered back hand of some anonymous TSA agent, but rather the curious fact that I was the only one opting out. Although I must have watched at least a hundred people go through this particular security checkpoint, there wasn't a single other person who opted out of the naked body scan.

They all just lined up like cattle to have their bodies scanned with ionizing radiation. To me, that's just fascinating. That when people are given a choice to opt out of being irradiated, they will choose to just go along with the naked body scan rather than risk standing out by requesting to opt out.

You see, I'm not convinced that the TSA's naked body scanners enhance
air travel security at all. Previous security tests conducted by the FAA show quite clearly that the greatest threat to airplane safety isn't from the passengers but from ground crews, where bombs and other materials can be quite easily smuggled onto planes.

But even though naked body scanners may not enhance air
travel security, they do accomplish something far more intriguing: The successful completion of an experiment in human behavior. If you were to pose the question "Will people line up like cattle to be electronically undressed in front of government security officers?" The answer is now unequivocally YES!

Most people, it turns out, will simply do whatever they're told by government authorities, even if it means giving up their privacy or their freedoms. Almost anything can be sold to the public under the guise of "fighting terrorism" these days, including subjecting your body to what is essentially a low-radiation CT scan at the airport!

I don't know about you, but I don't think I should be required to subject myself to ionizing radiation as a condition of air travel security. Of course, the more technically minded readers among you might counter by saying that high-altitude travel is, all by itself, an
event that subjects you to low levels of ionizing radiation (which is true). But that's all the more reason to not add the body's radiation burden any more than necessary. Americans already get far too much radiation from CT scans and other medical imaging tests (not to mention mammograms). Do we really need to dose peoples' bodies with yet more radiation every time they board an airplane?

Click here to read more.

Let's start with the obvious: there are a myriad of reasons to oppose the widespread use of these scanners, from privacy to cost to practicality to slowing down our run away "fear industrial complex".

As I have argued over and over, including in my speech about the costs of war, we would do well to rethink the words "safe" and "secure". In this instance, what about the concept of "safe" from government intrusiveness and corporate profiteering off fear peddling? Considering the ACTUAL threat posed by terrorists, and the ACTUAL need for these machines, I would argue such intrusion makes us less safe, not more.

Remember, the likelihood that I'll get hit by lightning in one year is 500,000 to 1 while the odds I'll be killed by a terrorist on a plane if I flew constantly over 10 years is 10 million to 1. Does this laughably minuscule risk warrant yet another civil liberties encroachment? Does this irrational fear of being blown up in a plane really warrant supporting wars on countries that did nothing to us, or in this case, wasting HUGE amounts of money on ineffectual security systems?

Again, quoting past blogs I've written, "The bottom line is a rather stark one: 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?

Does this "fear" warrant increasing the already long list of airline passenger indignities?

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? I think, at least to an extent, the answer is yes.

For these reasons and more, 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?

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?

Now, as to the points made by the journalist from Natural News, and add that to the numerous women who commented on a post I did back in July about their experiences, I think a pattern is becoming that appears to be a very concerted effort by airport security to force people to go through the body it through making the alternative body search even more intrusive and uncomfortable, shaming and embarrassing those that refuse, or simply trying to say that they have to, when they don't.

Look, 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. 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.

In Europe they've added another reason to oppose these scanners: it violates child pornography laws. If there is some kind of global public revolt underway, if we are to take the article in Natural News as an indicator, it isn't happening in America - yet.

For me personally, its about more than all the individual points I've made from not making us safer to invading our privacy. This issue matters, as does so many other privacy related debates, because it highlights the way we are allowing "false fears" to drive too much of our public policy decisions and to adversely and artificially influence and affect our lives, opinions, and emotions. Fear is not a principle or pillar to build a healthy society around, particularly when those very fears are being magnified and sold to us by those that have ulterior motives to exaggerate threats.

The trend-line since 9/11 has been all too clear...and we're headed, rapidly, in the wrong direction. Whole Body Imaging is just one piece of a much larger puzzle that indicates privacy as both a right, and an idea is under assault. Lines in the sand must be drawn. Digital strip searches is one of the places we should draw one.

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