Monday, May 18, 2009

TSA SHOWING PUBLIC DUMBED DOWN VERSION OF VIRTUAL SEARCH MACHINE

CNN - Privacy advocates plan to call on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to suspend use of "whole-body imaging," the airport security technology that critics say performs "a virtual strip search" and produces "naked" pictures of passengers, CNN has learned. . .

The national campaign, which will gather signatures from organizations and relevant professionals, is set to launch this week with the hope that it will go "viral," said Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which plans to lead the charge.

"People need to know what's happening, with no sugar-coating and no spinning," said Coney, who is also coordinator of the Privacy Coalition, a conglomerate of 42 member organizations. She expects other groups to sign on in the push for the technology's suspension until privacy safeguards are in place. . .

TSA officials say privacy concerns are addressed in a number of ways.

The system uses a pair of security officers. The one working the machine never sees the image, which appears on a computer screen behind closed doors elsewhere; and the remotely located officer who sees the image never sees the passenger.

As further protection, a passenger's face is blurred and the image as a whole "resembles a fuzzy negative," said TSA's Lee. The officers monitoring images aren't allowed to bring cameras, cell phones or any recording device into the room, and the computers have been programmed so they have "zero storage capability" and images are "automatically deleted," she added.

But this is of little comfort to Coney, the privacy advocate with EPIC, a public interest research group in Washington. She said she's seen whole-body images captured by similar technology dating back to 2004 that were much clearer than what's represented by the airport machines.

"What they're showing you now is a dumbed-down version of what this technology is capable of doing," she said. "Having blurry images shouldn't blur the issue."

Lee of TSA emphasized that the images Coney refers to do not represent millimeter wave technology but rather "backscatter" technology, which she said TSA is not using at this time.

Coney said she and other privacy advocates want more oversight, full disclosure for air travelers, and legal language to protect passengers and keep TSA from changing policy down the road.

For example, she wants to know what's to stop TSA from using clearer images or different technology later. The computers can't store images now, but what if that changes?. . .

Coney knows only about what's out there now, and she worries that as the equipment gets cheaper, it will become more pervasive and harder to regulate. Already it is used in a handful of U.S. courthouses and in airports in the United Kingdom, Spain, Japan, Australia, Mexico, Thailand and the Netherlands. She wonders whether the machines will someday show up in malls.

The option of walking through a whole-body scanner or taking a pat-down shouldn't be the final answer, said Chris Calabrese, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union.

"A choice between being groped and being stripped, I don't think we should pretend those are the only choices," he said. "People shouldn't be humiliated by their government" in the name of security, nor should they trust that the images will always be kept private.

"Screeners at LAX [Los Angeles International Airport]," he speculated, "could make a fortune off naked virtual images of celebrities."

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