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!

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