Tuesday, March 8, 2011

TSA Steps Up Intrusive Searches - Are Scanners in Public Spaces Next?

In my last post I wrote about some recent positive efforts underway to address what has become a major consumer rights and privacy controversy: airport body scanners ("digital strip search") and the subsequent more aggressive pat down alternative. Unfortunately, three stories caught my this week that indicate something more disturbing. I speak of the latest intrusive TSA security tactics being implemented in Seattle and the revelation that these body scanners and searches are being discussed for the larger public, not just airports.

As you know, I have written extensively on this topic. For my most detailed op-ed on the subject, you can check out my November op-ed in the California Progress Report entitled "A  Hobson's Holiday Travel Choice: Digital Strip Search or Get Groped" in which I explain the many reasons these airport body scanners and the subsequent aggressive pat downs for those that choose that "option", are grossly ineffective, intrusive, expensive, and unnecessary.

On that note, let's get right to the story in the Christian Science Monitor about recently discovered documents showing the TSA  tested similar body scanner technology at a commuter train station in New Jersey and signed contracts for more scanning in public places.

Samantha Murphy reports:

Public interest group Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) published yesterday (March 2) a series of government contracts dated from 2006 to 2008 regarding the possible rollout new anti-terrorism technologies. The Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has denied allegations of a public rollout of the technology.

"Transit systems are attractive and visible targets for terrorism because they carry large numbers of people in concentrated, highly repetitious, and predictable patterns that are designed for easy access," the 173-page document said.

The document, which was handed over through a Freedom of Information Act request (FOIA), detailed how backscatter X-ray scanners and video cameras would be tacked on to mobile vans that could scan city streets and intelligent tracking devices could be mounted on buildings and poles. This would be a part of "covert inspection of moving subjects" to monitor pedestrian body and eye movement.

The report also discussed how walk-through screening systems that use active millimeter wave technology would be set up in key locations. This is the same imaging technology currently causing a stir in U.S. airports due to privacy, effectiveness and radiation-related health concerns.


"These technologies are a gross violation of the Fourth Amendment, which guards against unreasonable searches, as travelers undergo a search without any suspicion of wrongdoing," EPIC staff counsel Ginger McCall said. "Whether or not this program has been rolled out or could be rolled out in the future, it needs to be shut down for good."

EPIC – which filed a lawsuit last year against the TSAhas been fighting to suspend backscatter and active millimeter wave technology at airport security checkpoints until concerns about their privacy protection, health effects, religious freedom ramifications and effectiveness are addressed. Court hearings will begin in Washington D.C. on March 9.

Click here to read more.

The USA Today expanded on these revelations, indicating that it was the Department of Homeland Security that was particularly interested in developing "covert body scans" of the public at large.

Thomas Frank reports:

The Homeland Security Department paid contractors millions of dollars to develop and study surveillance systems that could covertly track pedestrians and check under people's clothing with airport-style body scanners as they enter train stations, bus depots or major events, newly released documents show.


A $1.9 million contract with Rapiscan Systems, which makes airport body scanners, asked the company to develop similar machines for "covert inspection of moving subjects" and to find explosives on suicide bombers "through clothing, backpacks and other packages." The contract was signed in 2005.


In 2006, the department signed a $1.3 million contract with Northeastern University in Boston to test systems that could potentially "monitor and track individuals in a crowd." Northeastern studied video cameras, imaging equipment similar to body scanners and radar, which can spot people at a distance.

After receiving Northeastern's reports, Homeland Security decided against trying to develop a prototype machine, Whithorne says.

Using systems to covertly scan pedestrians "would be a clear violation" of laws against unreasonable searches, McCall says. "If you are walking down the street, this allows them to digitally strip-search you and rifle through your belongings without any sort of justification," she says.

Click here to read more.

The fact that there seems to be such intent on expanding, not reducing, the use of not only body scanner technology on the public (who have no reason to be under suspicion), doesn't surprise me of course, but it does send off alarm bells. The admittedly hackneyed term "slippery slope" certainly comes to mind when discussing technologies like these body scanners, same goes for the other "options" being looked into by the Department of Homeland Security, from video surveillance to GPS tracking.

These revelations only serve to validate the concerns of those of us that have fought to rid airports of these technologies and the accompanying aggressive and unreasonable searches. A line must be drawn, clearly.

And that leads me to the third story I wanted to share today. I found this article about the stepped up, and grossly intrusive baggage searches reported by airport passengers in Seattle.

The Seattle Times Reports:

"A lady in a TSA uniform came over, put on her rubber gloves and went up and down the rows of seats, choosing bags to go through,"

Morrison was stunned. She expected to be screened at the designated checkpoint area, or maybe at the gate, where the Transportation Security Administration sometimes randomly checks passengers as they board. This was different. "To me, it just felt like an illegal search performed by a police state," she said.


Is the TSA testing a more aggressive screening procedure in Seattle? I asked the agency.

"TSA officers at airports nationwide routinely screen passengers at the gate area using a variety of methods, including physically searching bags and using explosives detection technology," said agency spokesman Greg Soule. "This additional layer of security is part of our unpredictable approach to keep passengers safe and reduce the risk of dangerous items being carried on planes."

James Morrissey, a University of Illinois biochemistry professor and a frequent air traveler, prefers "intrusive security." "TSA has become a law unto itself, and it routinely tramples the civil rights of the flying public," he says. "Unfortunately, there will always be some people who will be perfectly OK with having their rights trampled in the name of security. But allowing this to happen is very disturbing to me."

Jeff Stollman, a security and privacy consultant in Philadelphia, is irked by "security theater" that offers no real protection against terrorism. "I suspect that a lot of the current controls don't really do that much to improve security," he said.


Supporters of the TSA's more aggressive screening measures point out that no one has to fly, and that Amtrak, Greyhound and personal vehicles are still available.

But similar security searches are now being conducted on trains and in other public areas, including random screenings of mass-transit riders in Washington, D.C., New York and Boston.

The TSA has also indicated that it wants to move the perimeter of aviation security screening beyond the airport, to checkpoints on the road, according to Chris Calabrese, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union. If these roving searches are tolerated within the terminal and are allowed to jump to the street, there's no telling what might come next. Conceivably, in the near future the TSA could set up roadblocks to randomly screen automobiles anywhere it pleases.

Click here to read more.

These random bag checks remind me of what's been happening to Metro riders in DC, Boston and New York. In fact, the American Civil Liberties Union has recently stepped up its opposition to Metro's random bag searches, starting a campaign against the new policy and beginning to fish for potential plaintiffs to challenge it in a lawsuit.

The local branches of the activist group said they are taking such steps because they were ignored when they asked to meet with Metro in December. Metro "is on a collision course with the ACLU and its partners," said Johnny Barnes, executive director of the D.C. chapter, as he stood in front of the transit agency's downtown D.C. headquarters. "And it could have been avoided."

University of the District of Columbia law school student Aisha Ching said Metro Transit Police Chief Michael Taborn told riders in a public forum that those who refuse to be searched will be observed, which amounted to being followed for exercising one's right to refuse.She also said having signs about the searches gives riders -- and potential terrorists -- the option to find another entrance or station, making the searches ineffective.  

It goes without saying all this reeks of a surveillance state gone mad. Do we really want to be monitored at all times? Do we want to give ANYONE the right to search us, our bags, and see our naked bodies, just to go on trains and plains...or worse?

As I wrote in my last post, you will find few credible security experts that will advocate for greater use of these machines. So before embracing this 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 target shopping malls, trains or movie theaters instead.

As I always feel obliged to do when discussing this topic, let me quote noted security and privacy expert Bruce Schneier as he expounds on this "targeting tactics" strategy: "(it's) magical thinking...Descend on what the terrorists happened to do last time, and we'll all be safe. As if they won't think of something else."

He also had this to say about the body scanners: "I'm not impressed with this security trade-off. Yes, backscatter X-ray machines might be able to detect things that conventional screening might miss. But I already think we're spending too much effort screening airplane passengers at the expense of screening luggage and airport employees...to say nothing of the money we should be spending on non-airport security. On the other side, these machines are expensive and the technology is incredibly intrusive. I don't think that people should be subjected to strip searches before they board airplanes."

Perhaps most apt for today's revelations, he also summed up the false dichotomy too often offered the public between security and privacy, when he said, "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.”

We would do well to remember these basic truths before we wind up waking up in a country in which everything we do is monitored, and the government, or private interests for that matter, has the right to violate the 4th Amendment at will, for no good reason, except that there's a "War on Terror". No thanks...

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