November 09, 2010

Trading privacy, freedom, and health for... nothing

You might have heard me complain before about airports. I flew a lot when I was in grad school, several times a year, and I enjoy the flying itself. But since 2001 the whole airport experience has become increasingly unpleasant, with most of the changes designed to make us think we're safer without doing a whole lot to actually improve our security.

This trend has run completely off the rails in the last year with the introduction of the strip search scanners—showing naked pictures of you to someone at a terminal somewhere to verify that you're not carrying anything that they suspect might be a weapon. Backscatter X-ray scanning first made a splash a year or so ago and seems fast on its way to becoming standard equipment in US airports. A boon for Rapiscan (actually their name! I couldn't make this up!), but a huge loss for the travelling public.


We're told that we shouldn't worry. Why? Well, partly because the images were too blurry to make out any detail of skin or genitalia, they said. But they lied about that. The genitalia might be sort of smooshed up depending on your undergarment preferences, but the machines take images in pret-ty fine detail.

Oh, but the machines aren't even capable of storing the images, they said. But they lied about that, too (see page 16). In fact the spec requires that the machine store things and even make them downloadable onto USB sticks. Ok, they said, they're capable but we would never do that, don't you trust us? I'm not entirely sure why we would, since they required the machines to have storage capability and are now going out of their way to claim that they don't. In a somewhat related case, US Marshals were caught lying about this too—they have a slightly different type of strip search scanner than they're bringing in to airports, but the images were, sure enough, stored away. TSA is trying to distance themselves, but it's unconvincing.

Another early concern was health-related: if these are X-ray machines, and we're supposed to limit our lifetime exposure to X-rays and other radiation (due to cancer risk among other things), don't they pose a health risk? But no, they said, the radiation is really weak, nothing to worry about. Well, they might have been lying again, both in underestimating the per-dose risk and particularly in downplaying the social risk: even if one pass through the scanner is low-risk, if millions of people go through these things, with some people repeating it frequently, it's near-certain that these machines will be responsible for increased risk in the population. Furthermore, among children and the perhaps 5% of adults that are more sensitive to radiation, the risk is, again, higher. TSA responds: nah.

New developments

But aside from all of that, TSA has long claimed that you could decline to be scanned by these machines, in which case you would be screened using traditional means. They've now upped the ante with a new policy that mandates that the TSA person actually grope your genitalia rather than the traditional pat-down. The apparent goal of this is to embarrass people into going through the strip search scanner instead. I've been seeing various reports that corroborate this idea.

There's currently a rumour spreading in the blogosphere that the APA, a major pilots' union, is calling a boycott of the backscatter X-ray scanners, which would be huge. One libertarian blog prints a (purported) copy of the letter to the union members. So far I only see it in one "real" news outlet,, but possibly it just hasn't gotten traction yet. It's certainly good news for the anti-strip-search crowd, though.

Are they really so bad?


As established above, these scanners take a pretty detailed picture of your naked body. They show the picture to someone (or several people, who knows), and save it to a hard drive that they claim they won't do anything with, where it will sit indefinitely. Furthermore, it definitely exposes you to some amount of X-ray radiation, which might or might not be generally safe, and might or might not be specially problematic for you personally, depending on your medical background and/or genetic makeup.

This is an incredibly invasive form of search. One might suppose that the Fourth Amendment would prevent the government doing such a search without probable cause, but in a particularly puzzling turn, the Supreme Court has ruled that "administrative" searches (like metal detectors) are acceptable specifically when they don't suspect you of anything. The strip search scanners haven't been constitutionally tested yet, but I wouldn't count on help from that quarter. Even if they turn out to be constitutional, that doesn't change the fact that your basic freedom of movement has a tollgate across it, and the toll is that you either have to flash a stranger or let him grope you. Under other circumstances, this would be a clear case of sexual assault.

Which brings me to one of the most important problems with this system. There is a significant proportion of our population who were subject either to child abuse or to some other form of sexual trauma. Requiring them to relive the trauma—again, you're given a choice between letting a stranger see or touch your genitalia—is truly a form of psychological assault. It's just a matter of time before someone goes into a full-scale panic attack over this at an airport, although the likelier result is that people who've suffered that sort of sexual trauma will simply not fly.

There are two other constituencies who are particularly affected by the policy: the young and the religious. Parents who don't particularly want naked pictures of their children floating around, or who are concerned about the radiation vulnerabilities, may choose to not let their children be scanned—which means they get groped instead. I dearly hope that there are no pedophiles on staff at the TSA, although at this point I have to assume that would be an attractive job option for them. As for religious people, there are a number of denominations that have fairly strict rules about modesty and physical contact (and not just for women). Such denominations are effectively barred from flying if these policies become fully mainstream.

And the worst part is, they aren't really improving security. You already couldn't get a gun through, or electronics, or various other things that set off the metal detector; the main thing that they weren't already able to catch was liquid or plastic bomb-making materials, and these are still hideable in various body cavities or through surgical implantation.

What can you do?

Of course, this is one of those dumb things that takes on an inertia of its own, propelled forward by uncritical people who will trade away anything for even the illusion of security, as well as—let's follow the money here—the purveyors of the scanners, who are making gobs of money right now. There are some things you can do to push back, though.

Don't fly. Drive or take the bus or train (or don't travel at all). This is a form of voting with your feet (as it were), but is most effective if you also write to any airlines of which you're a frequent flyer, explaining why you won't be using their services anymore, as well as to your local Congressional representation, explaining why you're not contributing to that sector of the economy anymore. Airlines and Congress are two groups that might actually have some influence on TSA policy.

Decline the scanner. If you do fly (unavoidable for some of us), and get selected, turn them down. Politely, of course, but firmly and in terms that make it clear to everyone around what you're doing; here's a suggested script:

"I'd prefer the pat-down (or 'groping') to the strip search, please."
If challenged on the term strip search, as seems semi-likely:
"It records a picture of my naked body, and sends it to a screen for someone to look at, right?"
Then, regardless whether the responds is "yes", "no", "yes, but...", silence, whatever, follow up with just:
"Pat-down, please."
You don't want to overly provoke anyone, but it's important to get the facts out there: this lets everyone else in the line what they're actually signing up for. As an added benefit, it may gum up the security lines—and the more they get gummed up, the more likely that policy gets modified.

File a report. If you feel the TSA has been abusive with a pat-down search, you might try filing a report with TSA but you should definitely report it to the ACLU, who is tracking these abuses and building a case. You should also report to EPIC even if you go through the scanner, as they're trying to build a case about those as well (and to see if any particular groups are being profiled by being selected disproportionately for scanning).

Be vocal! A lot of people still don't understand just what the problem is; talk about it and explain that the screenings (either the strip search scanner or the manual groping) are invasive and abusive; that they are not helping security; and that they certainly violate the spirit of the 4th Amendment and arguably its letter. Show nothing but the deepest of contempt for anyone who claims to either A) value freedom or B) hate big government but still supports this massive, expensive, invasive, overreaching waste of time and money.

In closing, I'll leave you with a clip that is probably familiar but looks rather different now than it did a couple years ago. It was funny in 1982 because it seemed so absurd. Now it just seems prescient:

"Gah, if TPTB want to shut down all airline travel, it'd be way easier to just come out and say it. ALL AIRPORTS CLOSED! Better than this long drawn-out charade where we all have to hate airplanes first." --Eva Sweeney

Posted by blahedo at 2:36am on 9 Nov 2010
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