A Hobson’s Holiday Travel Choice: Digital Strip Search or Get Groped?

Posted on 17 November 2010

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly versionSend by emailSend by email

By Zack Kaldveer
Consumer Federation of California

By now most everyone has heard of, or been violated by, the latest anti-terror security “savior” called “Whole-Body-Imaging”. To those that prefer a more accurate description of the new technology, let’s call them "digital strip search machines". These full-body airport scanners use one of two technologies - millimeter wave sensors or backscatter x-rays - to see through clothing, producing images of ghost white naked passengers. And they’re coming to an airport near you.

Ensuring Compliance: The Opt-Out “Choice”

For those that feel uncomfortable being viewed essentially nude by Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents simply to visit your family this Thanksgiving, you can always opt-out. But this “choice” only leads to yet another violation of privacy: a recently announced policy of more aggressive “pat downs” of those that choose to forgo the scanners.

Numerous disturbing accounts have been posted on my Privacy Revolt blog by passengers that have experienced aggressive pat downs, mockery, and shaming for opting out of the body scanners. Worse, all but one of these cases took place BEFORE THE TSA announced its new policy of even MORE intrusive pat downs for those that don’t comply. The message being sent is a clear one: DON'T OPT OUT.

This dual privacy intrusion, a Hobson’s choice between a digital strip search or being groped by a stranger, has sparked an intensifying public backlash in recent weeks, including an airline pilot refusing to be subjected to these scanners and subsequently suing  them for refusing to allow him to work, a boycott by the world’s largest pilot’s association over health risks posed by the low level radiation the machines emit, the offering of video proof by a man being thrown out of an airport after refusing to submit to a security check "groin" pat down (and now he’s being threatened with a $10,000 fine and a civil suit for leaving the airport), and the announcement of a national opt-out day for this November 24th (Wednesday) – the busiest travel day of the year.

Airport Body Scanners: Questions We Should All Be Asking

To date, the debate over the efficacy of these machines has centered on a number of key questions, including:

Is being viewed digitally naked to board a plane a violation of privacy in and of itself?

One Transportation Security Administration (TSA) official was quoted in the USA Today as saying, "You can actually see the sweat on someone's back". That fact alone leads me to answer this question with an unadulterated "yes", and it appears that a growing number of Americans agree with this sentiment. If there was ever a time to utilize the admittedly hackneyed term “slippery slope” now would be that time. In other words, where does it end?

In countries around the world public and government opposition is growing. In Europe another reason to oppose them has been added: they violate child pornography laws, leading officials to advocate that by the least different screening methods should be used on pregnant women, babies, children and people with disabilities.

Do these body scanners actually make air travel "safer"?

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.

Noted security and privacy expert Bruce Schneier expounds on this "targeting tactics" strategy, calling it ,"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."

I also recommend watching Keith Olbermann's interview of the pre-eminent airport security expert in Israel who argues that these machines, and the aggressive pat downs that now accompany them, make us less safe, not more.

It should also be noted that these scanners can’t detect explosives inserted into the body, in something like a reinforced condom that could be passed and then detonated. This fact begs another question: will this “war on terror” hysteria lead to even MORE invasive physical examinations than the TSA has just announced? If we follow the absurd logic that pervades a security state industry that constantly seeks to create and then offer to solve new risks, the answer could very well be “yes”.

Art Carden of Forbes magazine makes another important point on the treatment of pilots as terror suspects, 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...”

It’s even unclear whether the scanners solve the problem of an “underwear bomber” (an attack attempt constantly trumpeted by scanner advocates as a reason to use them).

Perhaps a more important question to ask is whether the actual likelihood of a terrorist attack (versus our inflated fears of such a threat) warrants yet another encroachment on our right to privacy and quality of life?

So before we willfully give up our civil liberties 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 if you are a constant flyer over 10 years is 10 million to 1.

Blogger Brad Friedman expanded on this point, noting that if you don’t count the Ft. Hoot shooting as a terrorist attack (which it wasn't); there were only three deaths due to terrorism in this country in 2009, including the Little Rock military recruiting office shooting, the Holocaust Museum shooting, and Dr. George Tiller's assassination. The last two of those came at the hands of right-wing extremists no less. Compare those figures to the 45,000 Americans that died because they didn't have health insurance or the 600 that died from salmonella poisoning.

In the final analysis, if we include in our definition of "safe" the concept of "safe" from government intrusiveness and corporate profiteering off fear peddling, I would argue these machines make us less secure, not more. So let’s scrap the meme that we should live in fear and that our constitutional rights must be sacrificed to address a threat the fraction of that posed by lightning, salmonella, and the health insurance industry.

Are these body images adequately protected?

Despite TSA claims to the contrary, documents obtained from the Department of Homeland Security by The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) show the machines being used at some U.S. airports CAN record and store passenger images. EPIC staff counsel Ginger McCall said the “TSA claims it has not stored such images, but EPIC believes that statement is false."

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?

If these images weren't or couldn't be stored, why do so many keep popping up on the internet? This isn't a hypothetical. Just this week the tech site Gizmodo published 100 of 35,000 low-resolution body scans that were saved improperly during screenings at the U.S. courthouse in Orlando.

And, while your personal photo may or may not be of interest to some rogue agent, what about Angelina Jolie? How about a famous professional athlete or a powerful politician?

What corporate and political interests have the most to gain from pushing these body imaging machines?

The former head of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) - Michael Chertoff himself - currently lobbies for a body scanner manufacturer. These machines now a multi-billion dollar industry - led by the company with the oh so ironic name "Rapiscan". At nearly $200,000 per scanner this is big business and big profits - at the American taxpayer's expense. In addition to the profit motive and the growing lobbying influence of the “securities technology industry”, selling fear and the subsequent protection from that "fear" is a sure political winner too.

Do these machines pose a health risk?

Clearly this question cannot yet be definitively answered. But David Bates, president of the Allied Pilots Association, is leading the effort to boycott the scanners, stating “It is important to note that there are "backscatter" AIT devices now being deployed that produce ionizing radiation, which could be harmful to your health.”

But its not just pilots that have expressed concerns. As reported in the Daily Tech:

Associate Professor Jan Gebicki, from Macquarie University, who specializes in radiation biology, says that caution should be exercised when it comes to full-body scanners, stating “If we cannot establish any cause-effect links between health and scanner exposure, it is safest to assume that any exposure represents a potential risk, even if it is too small to measure.”

US scientists have also warned of the potential health dangers of the devices, saying that the radiation levels have been dangerously underestimated and could lead to an increased risk of skin cancer. University of California biochemist David Agard warned that unlike other scanners, the radiation from these devices is delivered at low energy beam levels, with most of the dose concentrated in the skin and underlying tissue.

“While the dose would be safe if it were distributed throughout the volume of the entire body, the dose to the skin may be dangerously high,” Dr Agard said. "Ionizing radiation such as the X-rays used in these scanners has the potential to induce chromosome damage, and that can lead to cancer."

David Brenner, the head of Columbia University’s Centre for Radiological Research, says the concentration on the skin – one of the most radiation-sensitive organs of the body – means the radiation dose is actually 20 times higher than the official estimate.

I'm in no position to say whether these machines pose a health risk or not. But the fact there could be ANY CHANCE at all that they could adds to the violation of privacy these machines represent. What is more private than the choices we each make everyday - and our right to make them - regarding our health? The TSA’s promise that we have nothing to be concerned about is no substitute for a thorough, long-term, independent scientific study of the effect this radiation may have on the human body BEFORE these scanners populate every airport in the country.

What does all this mean for the airline passenger?

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. When the actual threat of being killed by a terrorist on a plane is fully understood, we should ask ourselves whether this is a worthy reason to add these machines and the accompanying pat down for those that refuse them to the long list of airline passenger indignities.

As Art Carden also noted, "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.”

Isn't suffering through longer and longer lines while being shoeless, beltless, liquid-less and nail clipper-less enough? Now we need to be digitally strip searched and groped too? This clever youtube video (posted to the right of this website too) communicates the absurdity of all this more effectively than I've seen done to date.

The 9/11 Trend-line: Privacy under Siege

Facebook reportedly receives up to 100 demands from the government each week for information about its users. AOL reportedly receives 1,000 demands a month. In 2006, a U.S. Attorney demanded book purchase records of 24,000 Amazon.com customers. Sprint recently disclosed that law enforcement made 8 million requests in 2008 alone for its customer’s cell phone GPS data for purposes of locational tracking.

It wasn’t long ago that the idea of our government wiretapping American citizens without warrants for purposes other than national security would have been revolting. Now its official Government policy – and the telecom companies that participated in these crimes have been given retroactive immunity while continuing to make billions off overcharging the same customers they betrayed.

Nor was it long ago that we would have been rightly outraged by Patriot Act provisions – recently renewed – that allow for broad warrants to be issued by a secretive court for any type of record, without the government having to declare that the information sought is connected to a terrorism investigation; or that allow a secret court to issue warrants for the electronic monitoring of a person for whatever reason — even without showing that the suspect is an agent of a foreign power or a terrorist; and of course, that allow the government to search your home as long as it doesn't tell you it did.

The trend line is all too clear. More concerning than any single threat posed by any single technology – including airport body scanners – is this larger pattern indicating that privacy as both a right and an idea is under siege. The consequences of such a loss would be profound.

Bruce Schneier recently explained the fundamental connection between privacy and liberty, stating “…lack of privacy shifts power from people to businesses or governments...If you give an individual privacy, he gets more power…Privacy is a basic human need…The real choice then is liberty versus control.”

He also summed up the false dichotomy too often offered the public between security and privacy, stating: "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.”

Taking Action: Choose Privacy over Fear

Fear is not a principle to build a healthy society around, particularly when those very fears are being magnified by those that have ulterior motives (including financial) for doing so. Lines in the sand must be drawn - and digital strip searches are a good place to draw one. If the flying public revolts against these scanners it will be monumentally more difficult to justify their exorbitant costs and grossly intrusive nature.

Until we succeed in banning these machines outright (EPIC filed a lawsuit in July against the Homeland Security Department charging the use of these scanners violate passenger privacy), 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 in the future.

In the meantime please make your voice heard. You can sign Firedoglake’s petition to investigate the TSA, EPIC’s petition urging suspension of the use of these machines, and join the Facebook page “Stop Airport Strip Searches”. Then, on November 24th, if you do choose to fly, and don’t mind the delay or the pat down too much, Opt Out of using the scanners.


Zack Kaldveer is the Communications Director of the Consumer Federation of California, a non-profit advocacy organization. Since 1960 CFC has testified before
the California legislature annually on dozens of bills that affect millions of consumers. Zack also authors the blog Privacy Revolt.