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...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"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,"

It is. The whole TSA thing is the politician's dog & pony show to convince the public that they're on it esecially after 9/11. No politician wants to be preceived as "weak" on their stance on terrorism that can jeopradize their re-election chances. That just hur