Friday, June 13, 2008


"Protections are the technological equivalent of making passengers parade naked through a separate room with a bag on their head"

ACLU - The Transportation Security Administration is installing new "whole body imaging" machines at some airports around the country – essentially taking a naked picture of air passengers as they pass through security checkpoints. In short, this technology is a "virtual strip search." The machines are reportedly being deployed at BWI airport, Dallas/Fort Worth, LAX, JFK, Reagan National, Las Vegas, Albuquerque, Detroit, Phoenix, and Miami.

The technology being used in most cases is called “Millimeter Wave.” It is different from “backscatter x-rays” in that it uses non-radioactive electromagnetic waves to produce images.

- This technology produces strikingly graphic images of passengers’ bodies. Those images reveal not only our private body parts, but also intimate medical details like colostomy bags. That degree of examination amounts to a significant – and for some people humiliating – assault on the essential dignity of passengers that citizens in a free nation should not have to tolerate.

- This technology should not be used as part of a routine screening procedure. Passengers expect privacy underneath their clothing and should not be required to display highly personal details of their bodies as a pre-requisite to boarding a plane. However, such technology may be used in place of an intrusive search, such as a body cavity search, when there is probable cause sufficient to support such a search.

- TSA may say that these scanners will only be used for secondary screening, and will be a voluntary alternative to a patdown search. But:

The scanners will in fact be used as a primary search for some random selectees and some travelers flagged by watch lists.

We question how long this “voluntary” status, if it exists at all, will last.

A Hobson’s choice between a full body grope and virtual strip search is no choice at all.

We also question TSA’s assumption that the people who “consent” to this body scan really understand what they’re consenting to. Many passengers interviewed by USA Today had no idea what the machines were even as they stepped out of them.

- TSA is also touting privacy safeguards including blurring of faces, the non-retention of images, and the viewing of images only by screeners in a separate room. We are skeptical of the privacy safeguards that the TSA is touting:

These protections are the technological equivalent of making passengers parade naked through a separate room with a bag on their head. Passengers should not, and never would, tolerate that.

Obscuring faces is just a software fix that can be undone as easily as it is applied. And obscuring faces does not hide the fact that rest of the body will be vividly displayed.

- A policy of not retaining images is a protection that would certainly be a vital step for such a potentially invasive system, but given the irresistible pull that images created by this system will create on some employees (for example when a celebrity or someone with an unusual or “freakish” body goes through the system), how much assurance can we really have that images are not going to end up on the Internet? Unfortunately, the government’s record of safeguarding private information is not great.

Intrusive technologies are often introduced very gingerly with all manner of safeguards and protections, but over the years they're stripped away.

We need to see strong independent and legally binding assurance that the privacy-protecting policies will be enforced and unchanged.

-Ultimately, it is questionable whether the security value of these scanners is proportional to the cost to flyers’ dignity and privacy.

- It is questionable whether TSA, which has still not addressed many very basic problems with transportation security, should be spending large sums of money on these very expensive devices. For example, study after study by DHS’ internal investigators, as well as independent investigators, have found that TSA still cannot identify a large majority of explosives and weapons that the testers have sought to bring through security.

- In order not to be an ineffective “Maginot line,” these systems will need to be put in place in all gates in all airports; otherwise a terrorist could just use an airport gate that does not have them.

- How many of the people who submit to this body scan will end up having to do a pat-down search anyway because of limits in the technology’s ability to definitively identify suspected threats? Our impression is that a very high percentage of the passengers who opt for a scan will still wind up being physically searched because TSA officials will have trouble distinguishing threatening objects from ordinary ones like a wallet.


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