Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The National Opt-Out Day, Media Coverage, and Next Steps

The extended holiday travel weekend is over and by all accounts the National Opt-Out day from airport body scanners had little to no impact. I can't say I'm all that surprised frankly.

One, we're talking about a small percentage of passengers (a couple % I believe) that are actually even confronted with the choice to be digitally strip searched or groped. In addition, the vast majority of airports aren't even equipped with the scanners yet. And finally, let's remember, when people are traveling on the holidays (or any time for that matter), its very difficult to get them to delay their trip...or be blamed for delaying others.

Taking into account those factors, the fact that the National Opt-Out day didn't have the impact some believed it might isn't all that surprising - nor is it a blow to the effort to rein in our increasingly intrusive, wasteful, and absurd security state.

Let me make one other important point on the whole topic of "what percentage of passengers chose to opt-out" front. Both the TSA and the media have been reporting grossly misleading data. Yes, they have reported the number of opt-outs at airports, but they've been contrasting that with the total number of those that flew.

What they fail to mention is how many passengers actually were forced to go through the scanners,
and how many of those opt-out. Also not reported is how many passengers flew over the holidays versus the past, and whether any decline might be due to people "opting out" of fling altogether. The truth, in other words, isn't always what it appears. Master statistician Nate Silver of the New York Times has the scoop on this peculiar "reporting".

The Media's Inadequate Job as Information Gatekeeper

I would like to say a few quick words about the media's role in all this. What became clear to me from studying and following stories from the mainstream corporate press on this topic is how little context they provided. For instance, one would think that the first issues to address when discussing whether an invasive and intrusive security measure is being debated is A. how serious is the threat against those being subjected to the measures, and B. how much safer do the measures actually make us, and C. how much does it cost and what could that money be spent on something more effective?

Of course, these critical issues weren't ever really discussed (at least not honestly or openly). I think the main reason for this is if they did it would call into question the entire rationale for the ever expanding and ever more wasteful, intrusive, and invasive national security state (from wiretapping to torture).

As I have written on this blog too many times to count, the chances of actually being killed in an airplane by a terrorist are nearly NON-EXISTENT ( See my recently published article on the California Progress Report that explains all of this in great detail). And two, these body scanners do not make us safer. In fact, many security experts argue they make us less so due to their exorbitant costs and the way in which they actually end up bunching up people as greater targets in the terminals themselves.

Instead, the media went to its "go to" method of storytelling: focus on the human interest component. So, sadly, what we heard was a variety of individual stories about their problems with the scanners and/or pat downs, or other individuals actual traumatic experiences with them (all of which is important of course). And then the media circled the wagons and went into its "framing" mode, at which time the story became the same in nearly every paper and on every television news segment (outside of Olbermann):

"Yes, some of the pat downs went too far, yes, for some the scanners are intrusive, BUT we live in a dangerous time that requires sacrifices, so we should all suck it up and do what's right for the country."

What a crock of shit! What about the actual threat from terrorism? What about the waste of money these machines represent? What about how ineffective they are? Or, what about looking into what actually CAUSES terrorism as a way to reduce its threat?

Addressing the Root Causes of Terrorism

One would think if we are to have an honest discussion about "how to make Americans safer", then we must first understand what causes terrorism? Of course, asking that question at all invites an answer that would threaten our security state's conventional wisdom. We know, for a fact, that the reasons there are in fact terrorists that mean to do us harm is American foreign policy.

So, if we are truly trying to reduce the threat of terrorism there are DEMONSTRABLY more effective ways than those currently being pursued. A few alternative tactics to consider: stop bombing and occupying Muslim nations, arming their enemies, torturing and indefinitely jailing their people, and supporting ruthless dictators in their countries.

While we're at it we should reinstate every gay Arabic translator (which we have a critical shortage of today) expelled from the military due to their sexual preference (in fact all gays that were expelled), and focus our attention on intelligence gathering rather than warmaking to catch the real extremists that want to do our country harm.

No one is denying that terrorism is a threat or seeking to justify their murderous crimes, but how does creating more of them make us safer? And instead of spending one more minute listening to the grumblings of a war criminal like Dick Cheney, let's heed the words of Martin Luther King Jr. instead: "We all have to be concerned about terrorism, but you will never end terrorism by terrorizing others."

Noam Chomsky had it right too when he said "Everybody's worried about stopping terrorism. Well, there's a really easy way: stop participating in it."

And if that's not enough, check out this list of airport security methods that WOULD make us safer, don't cost NEARLY as much, and don't include being groped or digitally strip searched.

Tom Engelhardt has a great piece on Trutout today on this very topic entitled The National Security State Cops a Feel. Here are a few key key passages:

We live, it seems, in a national security “homeland” of little angry bureaucrats who couldn’t be happier to define what “safety” means for you and big self-satisfied officials who can duck the application of those safety methods. Your government can now come up with any wacky solution to American “security” and you’ll pay the price. One guy brings a failed shoe bomb on an airplane, and you’re suddenly in your socks. Word has it that bombs can be mixed from liquids in airplane bathrooms, and there go your bottled drinks. A youthful idiot flies toward Detroit with an ill-constructed bomb in his underwear, and suddenly they’re taking naked scans of you or threatening to grope your junk.

Two bombs don’t go off in the cargo holds of two planes and all of a sudden sending things around the world threatens to become more problematic and expensive. Each time, the price of “safety” rises and some set of lucky corporations, along with the lobbyists and politicians that support them, get a windfall. In each case, the terror tactic (at least in the normal sense) failed; in each case, the already draconian standards for our security were ratcheted up, while yet more money was poured into new technology and human reinforcements, which may, in the end, cause more disruption than any successful terror attack.

Directly or indirectly, you pay for the screeners and scanners and a labyrinthine intelligence bureaucracy that officially wields an $80 billion budget, and all the lobbyists and shysters and pitchmen who accompany our burgeoning homeland-security complex. And by the way, no one’s the slightest bit nice about it either, which isn’t surprising since it’s a national security state we’re talking about, which means its mentality is punitive. It wants to lock you down, quietly and with full acquiescence if possible. Offer some trouble, though, or step out of line, and you'll be hit with a $10,000 fine or maybe put in cuffs. It’s all for your safety, and fortunately they have a set of the most inept terror plots in history to prove their point.


But here’s the thing: in our deluded state, Americans don’t tend to connect what we’re doing to others abroad and what we’re doing to ourselves at home. We refuse to see that the trillion or more dollars that continue to go into the Pentagon, the U.S. Intelligence Community, and the national security state yearly, as well as the stalemated or losing wars Washington insists on fighting in distant lands, have anything to do with the near collapse of the American economy, job-devastation at home, or any of the other disasters of our American age.

As a result, those porno-scanners and enhanced pat-downs are indignities without a cause -- except, of course, for those terrorists who keep launching their bizarre plots to take down our planes. And yet whatever inconvenience, embarrassment, or humiliation you suffer in an airport shouldn’t be thought of as something the terrorists have done to us. It’s what the American national security state that we’ve quietly accepted demands of its subjects, based on the idea that no degree of danger from a terrorist attack, however infinitesimal, is acceptable. (When it comes to genuine safety, anything close to that principle is absent from other aspects of American life where -- from eating to driving, to drinking, to working -- genuine danger exists and genuine damage is regularly done.)

We now live not just with all the usual fears that life has to offer, but in something like a United States of Fear.

So think of it as an irony that, when George W. Bush and his cronies decided to sally forth and smite the Greater Middle East, they exulted that they were finally “taking the gloves off.” And so they were: aggressive war, torture, abuse, secret imprisonment, souped-up surveillance, slaughter, drone wars, there was no end to it. When those gloves came off, other people suffered first. But wasn’t it predictable -- since unsuccessful wars have a nasty habit of coming home -- that, in the end, other things would come off, and sooner or later they would be on you: your hat, your shoes, your belt, your clothes, and of course, your job, your world?

And don’t for a second think that it’s going to end here. What happens when the first terrorist with a suppository bomb is found aboard one of our planes? After all, such weapons already exist. In the meantime, the imposition of more draconian safety and security methods is, of course, being considered for buses, trains, and boats. Can trucks, taxis, cars, and bikes be far behind? After all, once begun, there can, by definition, be no end to the search for perfect security.

Read the rest here.

So let's all take the media's coverage of this issue with a big grain of salt. Its not over by a long shot. These airport body scanners, and their myriad of problems, from potential health risks to images being stored and shared to exorbitant costs aren't going away; in fact, their numbers are expected to more than double in the coming months.

This issue is bigger than simply the human feeling of intrusion when submitting to the state. Its about what are we doing as a nation to cause ANYONE to want to commit terrorist acts? How do we address that threat at THAT ROOT level? What security tactics ACTUALLY make us safer? How do we protect privacy in this age of irrational fear? And what is the most effective use of our tax dollars at a time we face the worst economic recession since the great depression?

I again go to privacy and security expert Bruce Schneier who sums up this false dichotomy between privacy and security best:

"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.”

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Airport Body Scanners, Conflicts of Interest, and New Polling

While I do want to tackle some other privacy issues here I feel there's still more for me to do on this topic...because let's face it, the issue is hot right now. Before I get to a compilation by Alternet of the 5 worst passenger pat-down experiences to date as well as op-ed's by both Ralph Nader and Thom Hartmann on the subject, I'd like to make a larger point on the growing anger directed towards TSA agents themselves.

Namely, I want to separate myself - in no uncertain terms - from what has become a right wing effort to turn this issue into yet another vitriolic assault on Obama, public employees, and the government in general.

For one, these scanners were authorized by President Bush, not Obama (though clearly I wish the President will see the light and stop using them).

Second, in NO WAY do I want to play a part in the growing hostility being directed at individual TSA workers. The right wing has long been trying to demonize public employees, using disinformation and scare tactics to do so. The primary reason is public employees happen to be the last remaining bastion of union membership. So I want to be clear, that while there are obviously some TSA agents that are abusing their positions, the larger point is that its the POLICY that's the problem, not public employees.

Third, I don't support privatizing airport security - which is what this whole assault on government and public employees is really about. Let's face it, this is a perfect issue to use to reinforce the right wing frame that all government is bad. But I would ask do we really want more Blackwaters? Do we really want corporations seeking to profit off fear running airport security? Why would anyone think their policies would be any better? In fact, at least government is accountable, on some level, to voters. Corporations aren't. And god knows we've seen how poorly privatization of other commons has turned out.

Now, with that said, it should be no surprise that there continues to be a constant slew of stories (some exaggerated I might add) of passenger indignities resulting from these aggressive pat downs. For the complete stories go here. But briefly, those are:

1. TSA agent feels around inside woman's underwear
2. Man has to board plane covered in urine
3. Cancer survivor forced to remove prosthetic breast
4. Agents search half-naked 5-year-old child
5. Pants pulled off senior citizen on his anniversary

Growing Influence of the Security Technologies Industry

I am pleased that Michael Chertoff, Former Department of Homeland Security, and his connection to these scanners is finally getting more press attention. Here's the scoop, Chertoff is now head of the Chertoff Group, the lead cheerleader for the Full Body Scanner Lobby.

Ever since the Christmas Day Bomb Scare, he's been making the rounds championing these scanners as a way to detect hidden explosive devices. A few days after making these press rounds the Washington Post revealed that Chertoff represents Rapiscan - a manufacturer of these full body scanners. The problem of course was that Chertoff neglected to mention this fact to a scared shitless American public...even as he shilled for a machine that wouldn’t have stopped Abdulmutallab (underwear bomber) anyway.

Within days, Chertoff’s client received an astonishing $173 million to manufacture and install these machines in airports across the country, again, a
fact he wasn't making known in ANY of the interviews.

As Kate Hanni, founder of FlyersRights.org, which opposes the use of the scanners noted at the time, "Mr. Chertoff should not be allowed to abuse the trust the public has placed in him as a former public servant to privately gain from the sale of full-body scanners under the pretense that the scanners would have detected this particular type of explosive."

Rapiscan has already sold 150 full body scanners to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), with a price tag of $25 million. By the way, the original orders for body scanners were made in 2005, during the Bush administration when Chertoff was still head of Homeland Security.

On that note, let me second what Thom Hartmann wrote today:

"As Benjamin Franklin famously wrote on February 17, 1775 in his notes to the Pennsylvania Assembly, "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."

If we are serious about stopping Middle Eastern zealots from attacking us, instead of blowing up our own Fourth Amendment right to be secure in our persons, let's stop blowing up Middle Eastern countries. When the Obama administration pulls our troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and works hard to resolve the Israeli/Palestinian crisis, then I'll believe our government really cares about our safety.

Until then, it's just theatre - with a few millions in profit for Chertoff and his friends. Michael Chertoff? Come over here and bend over, please."

But back to the lobbying power and influence of this burgeoning industry. At the start of this year the Washington Examiner ran down a list of all the former Washington politicians and staff members who are now part of what it calls the "full-body scanner lobby". This included:
  • One manufacturer, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, is American Science & Engineering, Inc. AS&E has retained the K Street firm Wexler & Walker to lobby for "federal deployment of security technology by DHS and DOD." Individual lobbyists on this account include former TSA deputy administration Tom Blank, who also worked under House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
  • Chad Wolf -- former assistant administrator for policy at TSA, and a former aide to Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Tex., a top Senate appropriator and the ranking Republican on the transportation committee -- is also lobbying on AS&E’s behalf.
  • Smiths Detection, another screening manufacturer, employs top transportation lobbying firm Van Scoyoc Associates, including Kevin Patrick Kelly, a former top staffer to Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., who sits on the Homeland Security Appropriations subcommittee. Smiths also retains former congresswoman Helen Delich Bentley, R-Md.
  • Former Sen. Al D’Amato, R-N.Y., represents L3 Systems, about which Bloomberg wrote today: "L-3 has ‘developed a more sophisticated system that could prevent smuggling of almost anything on the body,’ said Howard Rubel, an analyst at Jefferies & Co., who has a ‘hold’ rating on the stock."
James Ridgeway of Mother Jones makes an important point on this too, stating, "Airport security has always been compromised by corporate interests. When it comes to high-tech screening methods, the TSA has a dismal record of enriching private corporations with failed technologies, and there are signs that the latest miracle device may just bring more of the same."

And it doesn't stop there. The CEO of one of the two companies licensed to sell full body scanners to the TSA accompanied President Barack Obama to India earlier this month.

Clearly these connections are paying off as the number of scanners jumped from 40 at the start of this year to 373 installed at 68 airports across the USA as of last week,” reports USA today. “The TSA is scheduled to have deployed 500 scanners, which cost roughly $170,000 each, by Dec. 31, and a total of 1,000 by the end of 2011.

Understanding who's behind these machines and what their motives might be for promoting them is critical - because it strikes at the heart of our burgeoning surveillance state. Thanks to a great post by Robert Cruickshank today, I want to include two other insightful ways to view this whole "digital strip search" or "grope" issue.

Digby writes:
That's why this is security theater. We are chasing phantoms by pretending that if we stop people from carrying a bottle of shampoo on an airplane that we are safe. If you are so scared of terrorism that you're willing to throw logic out the window and subject yourself to ever more irrational safety procedures for no good reason, you'd better think twice about ever leaving your house. That, of course, is exactly the point of terrorism. And authoritarian police states.

And Melissa McEwan takes issue with the blithe dismissals of concerns about sexual assault at the hands of the TSA:

there are practical and valid objections being made by people with disabilities, parents of children with disabilities, and survivors of sexual violence....Those millions of people are not just potentially "inconvenienced." Being triggered does not mean feeling hassled or being annoyed or having your feelings hurt or getting upset. It means experiencing a physical and/or emotional response to a survived trauma, having a significantly mood-altering bout of anxiety. Someone who is triggered may experience anything from a brief moment of dizziness, to a shortness of breath and a racing pulse, to a full-blown panic attack.
With that, let's get to my featured article today by none other than consumer rights champion Ralph Nader. Nader writes:

The technology has already been challenged by recognized academic specialists on both safety and efficacy grounds. After six months of testing at four major airports, Italy is likely to drop these scanners, finding them ineffective and slow. The European Commission has also raised "several serious fundamental rights and health concerns" and recommends less-intrusive alternatives.

Back in the USA, the legal volleys have begun. Two weeks ago, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a public interest research center, filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Department of Homeland Security. The suit alleges violations of the Fourth Amendment, the Privacy Act, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Video Voyeurism Prevention Act and the Administrative Procedure Act (which calls for public hearings).


The department says full-body imaging is aimed at prevention. If so, why do passengers on the 15,000 U.S. registered business aircraft escape screening? Why, nine years after 9/11, is the department still way behind in the screening of air freight on passenger and cargo planes, where far more dangerous packages can bring down a plane?

For more than 40 years, public interest groups have been advocating for airline safety. After the numerous hijackings to Cuba in the late 1960s, we and air security experts pressed the Federal Aviation Administration to require airlines to strengthen cockpit doors and latches — to no avail. It took the 9/11 attacks before the FAA required the airlines to retrofit. Stonewalling, long a bureaucratic obsession in these areas, must end. A good start would be addressing these uncertainties:
  • Radiation: Homeland Security should respond when physics professor Peter Rez of Arizona State University calculates the radiation dose to be 10 times higher than the department is asserting. Or when David J. Brenner of Columbia University's Center for Radiological Research says that using these scanners — with up to 1 billion whole-body X-ray scans per year in the U.S. — "may profoundly change the potential public health consequences to the population."
  • Malfunctions. John Sedat, one of four scientists at the University of California-San Francisco who is questioning the department's technical assertions, said these machines could stall, giving passengers "severe burns if not worse." He points out that "software fails often."

One area in which I agree with Secretary Napolitano: Cooperation of the public is key to averting attacks. So it seems counterintuitive to antagonize the very people you're counting on to help you get the bad guys. Meantime, Homeland Security is turning TSA agents, who are at some radiation risk themselves, into government gropers without either suspicion or probable cause. People want security, but they do not like irrational, ineffective, invasive and hazardous over-reach.

DHS continually refuses to hold thorough public hearings or to answer reasoned technical, economic and other policy challenges to its practices. Congress must assert its authority to end what one TSA risk analyst has called its "culture of stupidity."

Click here to read the rest of the article

With that, let me point you to my article from last week published in the California Progress Report entitled "A Hobson's Holiday Travel Choice: Digital Strip Search or Get Groped?"

I should point out that we are starting to make some progress, as a new Washington Post poll shows that half the American public opposes the controversial enhanced pat-downs and that almost two thirds of Americans – down from 80 percent earlier this month - support the scanners.

For actions to take, as I point out in my piece, "You can sign Firedoglake’s petition to investigate the TSA, EPIC’s petition urging suspension of the use of these machines, and join the Facebook page “Stop Airport Strip Searches”. Then, on November 24th, if you do choose to fly, and don’t mind the delay or the pat down too much, Opt Out of using the scanners." And, the ACLU has joined the fray, sign their petition here.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Airport Body Scanner Roundup: A Growing Backlash or a Blip in the Road?

I think the best use of this blog today is to run through all the important breaking news and things to watch for as they relate to the growing backlash against airport body scanners and aggressive TSA groping. For an overview of the issue itself, and a thorough detailing of what's happened in the past couple weeks too, please check out my op-ed published in the California Progress Report on Wednesday entitled "A Hobson's Holiday Travel Choice: Digital Strip Search or Get Groped?".

Let's begin with two attorneys in the Bay Area warning all overzealous security agents performing the new federal pat-down this holiday season: touch passengers the wrong way, and we’ll throw you in jail.

On the legislative front, Congressman Ron Paul introduced the American Traveler Dignity Act to the House. The bill, HR 6416, would remove legal immunity from federal employees who subject an individual to any physical contact, x-rays, or aids in the creation of any part of a individuals body as a condition to travel in an aircraft. One place I don't agree with Paul though is his rush to privatize security, as he wants to with everything. As we know, putting the profit motive front in center has been a disaster for all kinds of other services in this country, from health care to electricity to banking. I don't think its the "who" that is patting down, its the protections we must be afforded that's important.

Marc Rotenberg - president of Electronic Privacy Information Center - is quoted in the piece on Paul's bill, stating "The courts give the government a great deal of latitude in airports, but it is not unbounded. The current screening procedures -- the digital X-ray cameras called 'body scanners' and the genital-groping searches called 'pat-downs' -- have never been reviewed by a court."

Other news from Congress finds that Democrat Bob Filner (San Diego) is calling on the House Homeland Security Committee to examine TSA’s “security screening procedures at airports, including full-body scans and pat downs.” He wants the committee to closely examine if the enhanced procedures are making travel safer. This I think could be a positive move, because one would expect that what they'll find is there is no verifiable evidence to suggest this makes us safer. In fact, perhaps an even more important fact will come out: there's only a 1 in 10 million chance even the most frequent flier over 10 years will get killed by a terrorist. So we're already safe!

Slate magazine asks another important question: have TSA screeners ever actually prevented a terrorist attack?As the article lays out, "Citing national-security concerns, the TSA will not point to any specific cases in which a screener stopped a would-be terrorist at a checkpoint. Nonaffiliated security experts, such as Bruce Schneier (who coined the term "security theater"), argue that that's because this has never happened. It's true the TSA doesn't make a habit of keeping success stories a secret."

PR Watch asks a similar question - do airport screenings make us safer - and provides a more useful and thorough answer, stating, "TSA has made passengers less safe by facilitating crimes against them. Recently a TSA supervisor was arrested at Liberty International Airport in Newark, New Jersey for allegedly stealing thousands of dollars in cash from passengers. The supervisor singled out non-English speaking people heading for foreign destinations as victims for secondary searches, during which he stole their money. Authorities estimate the supervisor pocketed between $400 and $700 in cash per shift. Similarly, baggage handlers at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) were caught stealing computers, cameras, currency and jewelry from luggage. The organized ring of baggage thieves were assisted by TSA baggage screeners, who used the mandatory X-ray scans of peoples' baggage to locate valuables in their bags."

The article also does a great job laying out the whole "inflated fears of terrorism" angle well, adding:

People also need to put the terrorism threat into realistic perspective. Globally, the average international death rate from road accidents is about
390 times that from international terrorism. In 2001, U.S. road crash deaths were equal to those from a September 11 attack every 26 days. More than 400,000 Americans are killed each year by smoking cigarettes -- hundreds of thousands more than terrorism causes, but millions more dollars are being pumped into trying to stop terrorism than into addressing these other well-known factors that kill hundreds of thousands more Americans with greater regularity. Policymakers should pay attention to such comparisons when allocating resources to public safety, and the public needs to take a deep breath and face the reality of such comparisons. Terrorism is a small threat compared to the massive amount of resources being thrown at the perceived problem.

Additionally, out the most notorious post-911 attempted airplane bombings in recent years -- the "Shoe Bomber," the Christmas Day "Underpants Bomber" and more the recent mailed cargo packages -- none were intercepted by TSA. They were all stopped by other means, including alert airline passengers.

The government is in an irrational panic mode when it comes to airline travel. Millions of innocent travelers are now effectively considered guilty until proven innocent. TSA's invasive screening procedures are bringing home to people to just how much freedom they have been forced to give up in response to the actions of a few terrorists. There must be better ways to handle the problem, and more effective ways to allocate resources to keep American safe. It's time the government started taking a hard look at what those might be.

In an op-ed by David Rittger of the New York Post of all places (a right wing rag), points out the money behind these machines and the lobbying interests pushing them, writing "An army of executives for scanner-producing corporations -- mostly former high-ranking Homeland Security officials -- successfully lobbied Congress into spending $300 million in stimulus money to buy the scanners. But running them will cost another $340 million each year. Operating them means 5,000 added TSA personnel, growing the screener workforce by 10 percent. This, when the federal debt commission is saying that we must cut federal employment rolls, including some FBI agents, just to keep spending sustainable.

Why cut funding for the people who actually
catch terrorists to add more pointless hassles at the airport? (Going through a body scanner also takes longer -- the process is slower than magnetometers.) Scanners clearly fail an honest cost-benefit analysis. Yet it's privacy that has the traveling public up in arms. Understandably so -- the message the TSA is sending us is: "Be seen naked or get groped."

Noted privacy and security expert Bruce Schneier appears in a Los Angeles Times article making another good point against the use of these machines, stating "Security measures that just force the bad guys to change tactics and targets are a waste of money. It would be better to put that money into investigations and intelligence."

The Cape May Herald details efforts by the ACLU and the famous pilot Sully Sullenberger (Sullenberger being more focused on pilots not being subjected to them...which he was successful in doing apparently, as the TSA has relented on screening and patting them down). The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey said will stand alongside legislative leaders from both sides of the aisle to support a resolution asking the United States Congress to review new TSA screening procedures at airports that violate privacy, and provide little in the way of security enhancements. “This technology involves a direct invasion of privacy,” said ACLU-NJ executive director Deborah Jacobs, “It produces strikingly graphic images of passengers’ bodies, essentially taking a naked picture of air passengers as they pass through security checkpoints.”

The Christian Science Monitor asks yet another fundamental question: Are TSA pat-downs and full body scans constitutional? One interesting passage in the article delves into their effectiveness, particularly from the perspective of European countries: "Italian security officials stopped using the scanners in September. "We didn't get good results from body scanners during testing,” said Vito Riggio, the president of Italy’s aviation authority, describing the scans as slow and ineffective. British scientists found that the scanners picked up shrapnel and heavy wax and metal, but missed plastic, chemicals and liquids, reported UK newspaper The Independent in January.

Some of these technological responses to terrorism really start to seem like placebos,” says Susan Herman, President of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and law professor at Brooklyn Law School. “To the extent that people understand what the benefits are, and the invasion of privacies are, they can make more informed decisions about giving up their privacy for machines that make them feel better, but don’t do the job of preventing any terrorist device from getting on an airplane.

This is a particularly satisfying finding by the Tech site Gizmodo, because in my article in the California Progress Report on Wednesday I wrote, "...if these photos weren't being stored, why do so many keep popping up on the internet? And, while your personal photo may or may not be of interest to some rogue agent, what about Angelina Jolie? How about a famous professional athlete or a powerful politician?

Well this question didn't take long to answer. As reported by the USA today, "As the backlash over more intrusive airport security methods increases, the tech site Gizmodo has published 100 of 35,000 low-resolution body scans that were saved improperly during screenings at the U.S. courthouse in Orlando. Federal officials have claimed that such "advanced imaging technology" could not store images. Gizmodo obtained the scans through a Freedom of Information Act request. The U.S. Marshals Service admitted in August that it had saved tens of thousands of images of employees and citizens who passed through the courthouse machines."

One CNN article (sorry, can't find the link), added to the discussion as well, particularly some of the health concerns associated with the machines, lawsuits filed by EPIC and a christian right group, Sully Sullenberger's efforts, and the Wednesday appearance before Congress by the head of the TSA (he said he won't change anything by the way):

The head of the Transportation Security Administration defended his agency's security procedures Wednesday, telling lawmakers it is "using technology and protocols to stay ahead of the [terrorist] threat and keep you safe."

The Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties organization aligned with the Christian right, has filed suit against Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Pistole on behalf of two pilots who refused both a full body scan and the pat-down. "TSA is forcing travelers to consent to a virtual strip search or allow an unknown officer to literally place his or her hands in your pants," said Rutherford Institute President John Whitehead.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center called on transport authorities to suspend the use of advanced imaging technology and called for public hearings into its use, center spokesman Marc Rotenberg said.

Consumer advocate and former presidential candidate Ralph Nader joined the group's request for more information, calling the agency secretive and unresponsive. Scanners "present hazards when they malfunction or when they function routinely," he said.

In a report posted on the FDA website, scientists say full-body X-ray scanners pose "very low health risks." The FDA evaluates radiation-emitting products as well as foods and medications. But a representative for Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory said the group did not evaluate the advanced imaging machines for passenger safety. "That was not our role," spokeswoman Helen Worth said. "We measured the level of radiation, which was then evaluated by TSA."

CNN could not independently confirm whether scanners pose any risk to passenger health.

It is also unclear how comprehensively they screen. The U.S. Government Accountability Office reported in March that "it remains unclear whether the AIT [scanners] would have detected the weapon used in the December 2009 incident," referring to a man suspected of trying to set off a bomb with explosives hidden in his underwear aboard Northwest flight 253.

And finally, and disturbingly, let's end with a rather shocking CBS poll taken Monday that found a whopping 81% of Americans are just fine with these scanners. Clearly we've got a lot of work to do to make more people aware of why this intrusion is such a threat, and why its all so pointless too. On the bright side, probably less than 1% of Americans have actually gone through the machines, and/or the optional aggressive TSA pat down yet. Plus, the poll was taken before a lot of this week's revelations and coverage came out.

I'll be interested to see another poll taken after the holidays. As for answering the question I posed in the title of today's post...that's yet to be seen...

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Israeli Security Expert on Countdown: Airport Body Scanners Make Us LESS Safe (and a Ron Paul barn burner too!)

Rather than rehash all this here right now, please check out my op-ed published in the California Progress Report yesterday entitle "A Hobson's Holiday Travel Choice: Digital Strip Search or Get Groped?".

Hopefully I'll have some time tomorrow to share some more thoughts on ALL the attention this issue if finally getting (those that follow this blog know I've been writing about this issue of airport body scanners for about a year now). For today, I just want to post another excellent video clip, this time from Keith Olbermann's Countdown in which, after a fantastic breakdown of the issue himself, interviews the pre-eminent Israeli airport security expert on the scanners, the aggressive TSA pat downs, and whether they're effective (hint: they make things worse, not better).

So add that to the multitude of reasons to oppose this privacy invasion: they make us less safe, not more (at least in terms of what we could be using all that money for).

Not to be outdone, check out Ron Paul on the floor of the House introducing a bill to address the airport body scanner issue(when it comes to privacy issues he's always right on the money...same on a lot of foreign policy...after that...well, let's just leave it there :) I can't take a position on this yet...but his remarks are on the money...

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A Hobson’s Holiday Travel Choice: Digital Strip Search or Get Groped?

I'd like to alert everybody to an op-ed I've written that was just published on the California Progress Report entitled "A Hobson’s Holiday Travel Choice: Digital Strip Search or Get Groped?".

If you're wondering about "actions" you can take to make your voice heard in opposition to these scanners and the TSA's recently announced more aggressive pat down policy check out my piece...you'll find some suggestions at the bottom.

Thanks to everybody for helping bring this issue to the nation's attention! Oh, and watch this ingenious video!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Stephen Colbert Does Segment on Airport Body Scanners!

See yesterday's post for all the latest on the growing controversy around Airport Body Scanners and the national "opt-out" day being planned to rebel against them.

For today, just enjoy this hilarious segment from the great Stephen Colbert last night on whole body imaging machines and the more than ironic name of the company that manufacturers them - Rapiscan. Colbert has actually covered privacy related issues on his show many times, and each time in a funny and enlightening way. For recent videos I've posted on this blog of him go here and here.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
TSA Full-Body Scanners - Jeffrey Goldberg
Colbert Report Full Episodes2010 ElectionMarch to Keep Fear Alive

Monday, November 15, 2010

Backlash Against Airport Body Scanners Intensifies, National "Opt-Out" Day Announced

Some of what I post today will sound very familiar to those that have been reading my increasingly regular posts on the growing controversy around the use of “whole body imaging” machines (digital strip searches) at US airports. Nonetheless, I want to be sure to give those first time readers out there a useful framework for which to understand this issue.

In the past couple weeks there have been a slew of breaking news to report. In addition to the intrusive nature of these machines themselves, as well as potential safety concerns brought up by a coalition of health experts, was the recent announcement by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) that it’s going to implement a policy of more aggressive pat downs of passengers that opt-out of going through the “digital strip search” technology.

To date, the debate on this blog has centered on a number of key questions, including:

  • Whether being viewed essentially naked to board a plane is a violation of privacy (In Europe they're even opposing them on the grounds that they violate child pornography laws) in and of itself? To this question my answer would be an unadulterated "yes", and it appears that a growing number of Americans agree with this sentiment.
  • Whether these body scanners actually make air travel "safer"? To this my answer would be "no". In fact, I would urge that before embracing every latest "terror fix" we would do well to remember that 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. As correctly pointed out by Ben Sandilands in his Plane Talking blog, "None of the techniques coming into use abroad can detect explosives inserted way, way, up a rectum, in say a reinforced condom like device that could be passed and then detonated. The whole 'threat' seems capable of lurching toward invasive physical examinations, ending in the collapse of air travel, if we follow the absurd logic that pervades a security scare industry that constantly seeks to create and then offer to solve new risks."
  • Whether the actual likelihood of a terrorist attack (versus our inflated and stoked fears of such a threat) warrants yet another encroachment on our right to privacy and quality of life? To this I would simply say that before we all 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.
  • Whether these body images taken of passengers are adequately protected and won't be shared or stored? In fact, the TSA has ALREADY been caught lying about the way these images are stored (as in, THEY ARE), so count me as skeptical when it comes to the security of these images. 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?
  • What corporate and political interests have the most to gain from pushing these body imaging machines and an ever expanding security state? Did you know that none other than Michael Chertoff himself lobbies for a body scanner manufacturer, and that this is rapidly becoming a $ multi-billion industry? At nearly $200,000 per scanner, we're talking big business. In addition to the good ole' profit motive, I think it goes without saying that politicians feed off public fear, and love to furnish their image as our fearless protector, keeping us safe from "terror" in a dangerous world!
  • What does all this mean for the airline passenger - particularly if he/she chooses NOT TO be subjected to these machines? Take a look at some of the past comments by readers of this blog of their experiences (go to bottom of the post to see all of them) to get a sense of what we’re all in for if we refuse to take the body scanner option. Most of these comments it should be pointed out came BEFORE THE NEW policy of aggressive groping.
As I've said many times here, choosing between being digitally strip searched, or aggressively felt up, simply to get on a plane, is no choice at all in a free society. And, as much as the TSA and Homeland Security may want to avoid this growing controversy, and act as if we have no reason to complain, all indicators point to a growing consumer backlash.

In the past couple weeks we've also seen an airline pilot refuse to be subjected to these scanners and subsequently sue the airline for its refusal to allow him to work as a result, a boycott by the world’s largest pilot’s association over health risks posed by the low level radiation these machines emit, increasing evidence that indicates there’s been a concerted effort by the TSA to make the opt-out choice a very uncomfortable, intrusive, and even humiliating one, a man has offered video proof that he was thrown out of an airport after refusing to submit to a security check "groin" pat down and then also threatened with a $10,000 fine and a civil suit if he left the airport, and now a national opt-out day against these body scanners has been announced for this November 24th (Wednesday).

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 and their grossly intrusive nature.

As I have also written here before, 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. Fear is not a principle or pillar to build a healthy society on, particularly when those very fears are being magnified and sold to us by those that have ulterior motives (including financial) for doing so.

At some point we need to draw a line in the sand and simply say "enough"! There is a substantial amount of evidence in fact – including the case of the “underwear bomber” itself - suggesting that our government is gathering TOO MUCH information, and our expanding surveillance state is making us LESS safe, not more.

Further illustrating my point about fear driving public policy is blogger Brad Friedman:

"If you count the Ft. Hoot shooting as a terrorist attack (which it wasn't, and isn't even considered one by experts), 16 people have died in the United States as result of terrorism in 2009. The other three deaths include the Little Rock military recruiting office shooting (1), the Holocaust Museum shooting (1), and Dr. George Tiller's assassination (1), the last two coming at the hands of right-wing extremists. Now let's compare that to the 45,000 Americans that died because they didn't have health insurance and 600 that died from salmonella poisoning.”

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?

Art Carden of Forbes magazine of all places lays out this case well, stating
"For even more theater of the absurd, consider that the TSA screens pilots. If a pilot wants to bring a plane down, he or she can probably do it with bare hands, and certainly without weapons. It’s also not entirely crazy to think that an airline will take measures to keep their pilots from turning their multi-million dollar planes into flying bombs. Through the index funds in my retirement portfolio, I’m pretty sure I own stock in at least one airline, and I’m pretty sure airline managers know that cutting corners on security isn’t in my best interests as a shareholder.

And the items being confiscated? Are nailclippers and aftershave the tools of terrorists? What about the plastic cup of water I was told to dispose of because “it could be acid” (I quote the TSA screener) in New Orleans before the three-ounce rule? What about the can of Coke I was relieved of after a flight from Copenhagen to Atlanta a few months ago? I would be more scared of someone giving a can of Coke to a child and contributing to the onset of juvenile diabetes than of using it to hide something that could compromise the safety of an aircraft.

And finally, most screening devices are ineffective because anyone who is serious about getting contraband on an airplane can smuggle it in a body cavity or a surgical implant. The scanners the TSA uses aren’t going to stop them."

So let's scrap the whole meme that we should live in fear and must give up our constitutional rights in order to be safe from a threat that is a fraction of that posed by lightning, salmonella, and the health insurance industry. Once we are free from that fear, we can discuss, rationally, specific security proposals, their cost effectiveness, and their constitutionality and effect on our quality of life, privacy, and yes, liberty.

Until that happens, privacy advocates will 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.

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?

To once again quote myself from a past post, "If we are truly trying to reduce the threat of terrorism there are DEMONSTRABLY more effective ways than those currently being pursued. A few alternative tactics to consider: stop bombing and occupying Muslim nations, arming their enemies, torturing and indefinitely jailing their people, and supporting ruthless dictators in their countries.

While we're at it we should reinstate every gay Arabic translator (which we have a critical shortage of today) expelled from the military due to their sexual preference (in fact all gays that were expelled), and focus our attention on intelligence gathering rather than war-making to catch the real extremists that want to do our country harm.

No one is denying that terrorism is a threat or seeking to justify their murderous crimes, but how does creating more of them make us safer? Perhaps we should heed the words of of Martin Luther King Jr. when he said "We all have to be concerned about terrorism, but you will never end terrorism by terrorizing others." I think we could apply his words to the terrorizing of our own people as well as those in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Pakistan.

For past writings and coverage of this issue you can 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 (some of which repeat the same information), in chronological order from older to the latest, starting here, here, here, here and here.

To make your voice heard, go to EPIC's site and sign their petition. Momentum is building to put a stop to this intrusion...let's keep it going!

Friday, November 12, 2010

FCC To Investigate Google Over It's "Wi-Spy" (Street View) Data Collection

I haven't covered the Google Wi-Spy scandal since the summer because I've been waiting for some breaking news. Now I've got some: The Federal Communications Commission is going to investigate whether Google broke federal laws when its street-mapping service collected consumers' personal information. This effort is now just one of a long list of regulators and lawmakers - both domestic and international - probing what Google says was the inadvertent harvesting of private data sent over wireless networks.

We can give special thanks to the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) for sending the initial complaint form and investigation request to the FCC back in May, alleging Google may have violated federal communications law designed to prevent electronic eavesdropping. Intentional violations of the law could result in fines of up to $50,000 for each violation.

Now, back in June I said the scandal had the "makings of a great screen play for the next dystopian techno-future thriller...coming to theaters near you." Hyperbole? Perhaps. But lets rehash what this scandal is all about and why countries across the world are so up in arms against Google.

Here's the backdrop (largely taken from my past posts): A few months ago the corporate giant admitted (after lying at first) that its StreetView cars were gathering private information from unaware local residents as they photographed neighborhoods - yet again demonstrating the company’s lack of concern for privacy and the need for government inspection of the data the company is collecting and storing.

Google first revealed that Street View cars were collecting wireless data in April, but said that no personal data from Wi-Fi networks was involved. But an audit requested by German regulators forced the company to admit, or "discover", that it indeed HAD been collecting and storing everything from email addresses to web searches.

As a result, a host of suits have been filed by people accusing Google of violating their privacy and breaking the law. Google was then ordered to make two copies of a hard drive containing data from the United States and turn them over to the court.

Three U.S. lawmakers, concerned Google may have violated U.S. privacy laws, also took action, asking the company to tell them how much personal data was gathered. California Republican Representative Joe Barton, California Democrat Henry Waxman and Massachusetts Democrat Edward Markey said in a letter to Google's Chief Executive Eric Schmidt that they also wanted to know how Google planned to use that information.

Lawyers suing Google have asserted that the company deliberately programmed its Street View cars to collect private data from open Wi-Fi networks, despite claims to the contrary. This assertion has been backed up by an independent report by Privacy International (PI) that details what kind of data Google's code did and did not collect, as well as how it was processed and stored.

The program, called "gslite", sniffed packets from unprotected WiFi networks as Google's Street View cars rolled down the street, separating out encrypted and unencrypted content. The encrypted data was dumped while the unencrypted data was then written to the car's hard drive.

Because of this specific behavior of the program, PI says it's clear that Google made no mistake at all"It is a criminal act commissioned with intent to breach the privacy of communications," wrote PI. The group says that some jurisdictions allow for accidental interception of data, but that Google clearly had "intent to intercept" and therefore is in violation of criminal law.

Also indicating "intent" on Google's part was the discovery of a patent application describing a method to increase the accuracy of location-based services — services that would allow advertisers or others to know almost the exact location of a mobile phone or other computing device. The patent application involves intercepting data and analyzing the timing of transmission as part of the method for pinpointing user locations.

The so-called “776″ patent application, published by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in January, describes “one or more of the methods” by which Google collects information for its Street View program. In case you were thinking Google might admit to wrongdoing and come clean on their latest anti-privacy debacle - the Wi-Spy scandal - you'd be wrong.

Remember what's still at stake for the Google's and Facebook's of the world: Pending internet privacy legislation that MIGHT significantly cut into their ability to make big bucks off user information.

So we know that Street View cars collected Wi-Fi data in late 2007 and they were fitted on all of Google's Street View cars by early 2008. And we know the collected Wi-Fi data included MAC addresses, SSID, signal strength, data rate, channel of broadcast and encryption method. But, Google maintains it was only done to improve the accuracy of location-based services. Google stressed again that the collection of payload data was a mistake and that because the system changed channels five times a second, and the car was moving, it was unlikely to have collected more than small fragments.

But Google said it had not conducted any analysis to find out if this was true. In fact the payload data has only been accessed twice - once by the engineer who wrote the code and once as part of the investigation by Google.

The letter said Google had already deleted data collected in Ireland, Denmark and Austria at the request of data protection authorities in those countries, but it has kept the data in the US because of pending legal action.

Google said it did not believe it had broken any laws by accessing open networks. But the letter said: "We emphasize that being lawful and being the right thing to do are two different things, and that collecting payload data was a mistake for which we are profoundly sorry."

It said it was reviewing data collection for all its services to stop similar problems happening again. In total Google collected some 600GB of network data from 30 countries.

So, there you have Google's response...one that I believe about as much as I believe that BP is going to be held adequately responsible for their wholesale destruction of the Gulf Coast.

Now to the latest on the FCC's decision to investigate from PC World:

The FCC's investigation adds to the growing list of organizations that are looking into whether Google broke any laws when collecting data for Street View. In May, Google disclosed that the accidental inclusion of code written for an experimental Wi-Fi project was causing its Street View vehicles to inadvertently collect "payload" data from unprotected Wi-Fi networks along the routes.


In the U.S. in June, Connecticut attorney general Richard Blumenthal announced that he was launching a multistate investigation into "Google's deeply disturbing invasion of personal privacy."

The Federal Trade Commission also launched a similar investigation earlier this year but closed it last month as a result of what it said was Google's assurances that it would delete any data that it had collected and not use it in any manner.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), which in May had asked the FCC for an investigation into Google's Street View data collection, today welcomed the investigation. EPIC president Marc Rotenberg said by e-mail that none of Google's Wi-Fi collection activities would have to light if European data protection officials hadn't opened an investigation. "The public also does not understand that while the interception of communications traffic may have been accidental, the collection of Wi-Fi device name and location information was not," Rotenberg said.

Click here to read more.

Google problems in the US are actually dwarfed by those outside of the country, where privacy laws are more stringent. French and German authorities, among others, are conducting probes. Earlier this month, U.K. authorities said Google had broken British law and asked the company to agree to an audit of its data-protection practices.

In response, Google is taking steps to appease privacy authorities, and repair its deteriorating image. The company announced it had named long-time privacy engineer Alma Whitten as director of privacy. It also verbally committed to enhanced privacy training for employees with a focus on collection and handling of data, and requires all project managers to maintain a privacy design document for each initiative they are working on.

As I have said, the backdrop to all this is the major online privacy legislation being debated in Congress to curtail and regulate the myriad of ways consumer rights are being violated for profit every single day on the net by companies like these two. Let's face it, personal data is an industry of its own now, and the ability of these companies to mine it, share it and sell it, without our permission or knowledge, is worth BILLIONS in profits.

Clearly public policy has not come close to catching up with technological innovation when it comes to the issue of privacy in the information age. We are only in the infant stages of setting up a framework that puts consumers in charge of their own data. In the following months, both on the legal and legislative ends, critical precedents may be set. Stay tuned...