Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Airport Digital Strip Searches or Aggressive Pat Downs?

I just posted on this subject two weeks ago...but more breaking news has come to my attention. To give readers a backdrop, I'm first going to use some of the intro I wrote for that last post (so forgive me if you've heard some of this before). I have covered the issue of airport body scanners (also known as "whole body imaging") extensively on this blog. But, before I get to an update on the story about an airline pilot being punished for refusing to be subjected to these scanners himself (he's suing!) and articles about the recent announcement by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) that they were going to get MORE AGGRESSIVE with their pat downs of those that opt-out of walking through the body scanners, let me give a quick rundown of what this is all about.

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, 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. In recent weeks however there have been two new components to this story (one in fact - the aggressive pat down - has been told to me personally by people commenting on past posts on this topic about there actual experiences at airports).

Before I get to the newly announced TSA policy and some of the experiences relayed to me by passengers, let's get to the story about the pilot for Express Jet Airlines that decided to draw a line in the sand by refusing a full-body scan and its alternative, a manual pat-down.

The pilot's reasoning was simple: he wasn't comfortable being physically manhandled by a federal security agent every time he goes to work. The pilot said he wasn't 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."

So that's where we left off two weeks ago. And today, I found this article about the pilot's lawsuit, as apparently the airline was none to happy with his initial refusal:

"We're basically challenging the constitutionality of the new policies under the 4th Amendment," Roberts said. A pilot with ExpressJet Airlines, Roberts was in full uniform and trying to commute to his job in Houston when he refused to submit to a full body scan and pat down at Memphis International Airport. "Evidently my refusal to show them my whole naked body and my uncomfortableness with them putting their hands on me was a big deal," he said.


"It's not reasonable when you walk into the airport, and just because you want to fly on an airplane that they should strip search you, or physically put their hands on your crotch or feel your body from top to bottom," he said. Roberts claims he has not been able to return to work due to his refusal to be screened. He is currently working with a labor attorney in Houston, who is communicating with his employer.

First, bravo to Mr. Roberts. His refusal, and subsequent lawsuit leads to the next question. What's the problem with opting out from the body scanner and choosing a pat down instead? Well, that question (or defense from TSA officials) leads us to the other piece of breaking news on this topic, and makes passenger's personal experiences that have opted out so important (if you have some, please comment on this blog!) to now document.

As I have written about here, 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.

As I said, I have been sent numerous disturbing stories of passengers that have experienced aggressive pat downs, mockery, and shaming for opting out of the body scanners, and those took place BEFORE THE TSA announced its new policy of even MORE aggressive pat downs. The message being sent is clear: DON'T OPT OUT.

And guess who gets these new aggressive "rub downs"? Anyone who opts out of the full body scanning technology, sets off a metal detector, or is picked for a random search.

Before I post some clips from the article, and arguments being made by the ACLU, I suggest you 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). Here's a few highlights (or lowlights):

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. And another:

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.

And another:

I didn't even know these machines existed. I was completely embarrassed. It was all guy workers, and I stood there for a good minute- everyone else was about 5-10 seconds. I thought I HAD to. I was never given the option for an alternative - which i would have taken. I feel extremely violated. I've suffered from body dysmorphic disorder, and for someone with this, these new machines are extremely traumatizing.

And another:

I was "chosen" for the body scan along with the women in front of me. I told the male screener I would like to opt out, which I thought was my right, but I suddenly was treated as if I were a suspect. The whole ordeal took about 15 minutes, by the time 2 female screeners were available, took me into a private area and one performed the pat down as she explained the procedure.

So that gives you just a small taste of what I've been sent, and now let's get to the new TSA policy as reported by Network World:

The aggressively enhanced TSA pat down involves over-the-clothes searches of passengers' breast and genital areas. You can opt not to go through the backscatter body scanners, and thereby keep your genitalia private from pictures, but then a TSA screener will use a front-of-the-hand, slide-down body screening that Ars Technica called "nut-busting pat-downs."

The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg asked a TSA screener, "In other words, people, when faced with a choice, will inevitably choose the Dick-Measuring Device over molestation? " The TSA screener replied, "That's what we're hoping for. We're trying to get everyone into the machine." Goldberg pointed out the fact that a terrorist would hide weapons inside their body and then asked if the new TSA guidelines included a cavity search. The TSA screeners said, "No way. You think Congress would allow that?"


In a recent post called TSA pat-down search abuse, the ACLU asked people to share more information about how these TSA searches are being conducted. There is a form to file a complaint with the ACLU, "If you are denied the right to opt out of the body scanner machines or believe you have suffered from rough, rude, and humiliating manhandling and groping of breasts and crotch areas, sexual comments, and a lack of privacy."


If a stranger feels you up at the airport, how is that invasion taking your privacy seriously? I'm not proposing that TSA workers enjoy subjecting people to enhanced rub downs, but surely the public outcry is only going to get much worse. In comments, some say they will not send their children through x-ray body scanners and will press charges if a screener "molests" their child. The Savvy Traveler wrote that the new TSA pat down "would be sexual assault anywhere else." After her underwire bra set off an alarm, CNN's Rosemary Fitzpatrick was reduced to tears when subjected to a pat down. She said, "I felt helpless, I felt violated, and I felt humiliated."

People on certain medications or who carry certain toiletries might trigger "groping." People who have a pacemaker, or who had hip or knee replacement, as well as those who are wheelchair bound and cannot go through the body scanners will be put through an "abusive pat-down complete with hands to the crotch." Consumer Traveler summed it up as, "According to executives with whom I discussed these various pat-downs, training was too difficult for a selection of pat-downs, so the decision was made to treat everyone like a common criminal suspected of carrying a hidden snub-nosed pistol or secreting drugs or explosives. "

ACLU spokesperson Christopher Ott told Homeland Security Today, "We're all for good effective security measures. 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.

None of us want terrorists on a plane, but surely terrorists would conceal explosive devices or weapons inside body cavities which would not be detected by the enhanced TSA pat down. A year ago, Slate pointed out that TSA promised the enhanced pat-down would "affect a very small percentage of travelers." To which the Slate writer said, "Yeah, yeah, yeah. That's what you said about the body scans. Just put on the gloves and get it over with."

Click here to read more.

Let me just provide the link one more time for those that want to make a complaint.

When I started writing about this topic a year ago this new component - the aggressive pat down - had not yet materialized. But, its all very predictable isn't it? How else to "force" everyone to use these body scanners they have no business subjecting us to?

Forgive me if you've read this from me before, but there are too many first time readers that will come across this post for me not to include the usual context I feel compelled to provide. Because the bottom line, more than any other single factor, is how fear is being used to drive public policy in this country. And fear, especially irrational fear, is one of the building blocks of not just bad public policy, but authoritarianism.

So here's some of that context:

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?

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, I think a pattern is becoming clear...there's a concerted effort by airport security to force people to go through the body scanners...be 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.

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 and aggressive pat downs are certainly a couple places we should draw them.


Anonymous said...

Other than not flying - What is the best way to make a stand and oppose this invasion of privacy? I've always dreamed of flying to Europe... but something like this makes me consider my alternatives.

CFC said...

Well, I just wrote an op-ed that was published on the California Progress Report in which I go into some of this. http://www.californiaprogressreport.com/site/?q=node/8392

Obviously, its not an easy task to slow down the national security state...particularly in the age of the "war on terror". So I don't have an easy answer to your question. But, there are 3 "actions" I list at the bottom of the article, two petitions and one national "opt out" day (this November 24th). Generally I think its just going to take people refusing to go in the machines, writing their legislators, and staying educated on ALL the ways in which privacy is under siege. This is just one component of a much larger assault. But, I do think that particularly in the case of a business like the airlines, they can only go so far and still expect to make a profit. I suspect they may be crossing a line, both with these scanners and with the new "pat down" policy.