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From Pat-Downs to Full Body Scanners: The TSA Firestorm

Privacy: The Scanners
backscatter advanced imaging technology airport security tsa full body scannerThe privacy issue is proving to be a thicket of problems for the TSA, to the extent that the ACLU is involved. Concerns arise due both to the images displayed by the scanning machines and seen by TSA agents, and to the new aggressive pat-down procedures.

To address the scanned images, as I suggest elsewhere in this report, the scanner images do show travelers in a sort of quasi-naked state. The image at right is an example from one of the backscatter machines.

It is clear that specific body parts can be detected, if in a sort of "line drawing" rendering; the TSA describes these as a "fuzzy photo negative" for the millimeter wave machine, and resembling a "chalk etching" for the backscatter machine. Both types of machines do apply filters to attempt to enhance privacy; the millimeter wave machine blurs facial features, and the backscatter machine has a privacy filter applied to the entire body.

Editor's Note: Since the publication of this article, the TSA has changed the way images are captured so that threats are shown on a generic gray outline of a body. See Are the TSA's New Body Scans Less Embarrassing?

As for storing the images, Horowitz writes, "Imaging technology cannot store, export, print or transmit images. All images are deleted from the system after they are reviewed by the remotely located operator. All machines have zero storage capability because they are disabled by the vendor before they reach airports. No cameras, cellular telephones or any device capable of capturing an image is permitted in the resolution room." Also, it is my understanding that the images are deleted before the next passenger can be scanned.

The public's confidence that the images are being deleted are not helped by reports that a courthouse in Florida, which used extremely similar machines and made similar claims that nothing was being saved, was discovered earlier this year to have archived thousands of these images. The TSA says its machines are different, but many travelers remain skeptical.

Privacy: Pat-Downs
The new procedures now allow TSA agents doing pat-downs to use the front of their hands and to conduct what turn out in practice to be unarguably intimate searches of travelers' entire bodies. For some revealing video of how aggressive these pat-downs can be, see this video from a recent Today Show. As many have reported, agents really are touching folks' "private" parts.

Unfortunately, this pat-down is the only alternative to the full body scanner. If there is a scanner in your security lane and you prefer to opt out, you are in for a very aggressive pat-down. Herein lies the problem for many travelers -- potentially unsafe X-rays or a full groping are now part of the cost of taking a flight to attend a bat mitzvah or beach vacation these days.

Also, going through the full body scanner is no guarantee that you won't have to go through a pat-down as well. If any anomalies are detected during the scan, officers may take you aside for a pat-down; the same applies if you are selected for random screening.

Pat-downs are conducted by officers of your gender, and you have the right to request a private screening at any point. And for worried parents, Horowitz tells us, "After a thorough risk assessment and after hearing concerns from parents, TSA made the decision that a modified pat-down would be used for children 12 years old and under who require extra screening."

Editor's Note: In September 2011, the TSA announced further changes to the screening procedure for children 12 or younger. They will no longer have to remove their shoes before going through the checkpoint, and if the metal detector or full body scanner detects any anomalies, the child may be able to go through the machine again in lieu of a pat-down. The screener may also choose to swab the child's hands for explosives before resorting to a pat-down.

For disabled travelers who are unable to stand unassisted for five to seven seconds in a full body scanning machine with their hands raised above shoulder level, a pat-down will be required, Horowitz tells us. "Passengers who can neither walk nor stand are ineligible for advanced imaging technology screening and receive alternative screening using a pat-down procedure while passengers remain in the wheelchair," she says. "Regardless of the degree of mobility, passengers' wheelchairs are thoroughly inspected and any removable items are required to undergo X-ray screening. As with all passengers, travelers with special needs, or their caregivers, can request private screening at any point during the screening process."

Security: Do The Machines and Procedures Make Us More Secure?
I don't consider myself a TSA apologist by any means, but I have to admit that I buy into the notion that careful passenger screening is a deterrent to terrorist activities. It will not work all the time, and the TSA has definitely not done a great job of explaining themselves either on a macro policy level, or when face-to-face with travelers. They seem to dither on silly stuff (iPad out of bag or not?), and overreach egregiously on important stuff -- threatening to lock up people who do not want to be groped is the stuff of police states, not of safety enhancement.

One of the most persuasive elements of pilot objection to the procedures derives from the fact that while pilots must go through the scanners, potentially hundreds of other airport employees, from food vendors to maintenance crew, apparently may not. If the whole point of the process is that anyone who is on the airplane side of the security checks is considered safe, it is hardly reassuring that cleaners, caterers, fuelers and other people with full access do not have to go through the same scanners as do pilots, flight attendants and passengers, according to Patrick Smith. I asked the TSA about this, and Horowitz said only that "all airport vendors are subject to the TSA approved airport security screening plan," but did not say specifically one way or the other if they had to go through the scanners.

airport floor passengers air travel terminalThere are a lot of reasons why the TSA is having a particularly rough time at the moment. To outline a few -- first, the machines are very new and far from ubiquitous, so travelers on an outbound flight might do the usual shoes- and sweaters-off routine, and on the way home find themselves being roughed up by someone wearing blue latex gloves, with little or no warning about what to expect where, when or why.

Second, it appears that the TSA has not truly completed its due diligence -- or very importantly marketing -- on the safety of the machines.

Third, regular travelers and airline professionals alike are tiring of the machinations of an inefficient, impersonal and bullying bureaucracy, particularly one where the people applying the rules so often don't even know the rules, or seem to make them up as they go along.

In truth, a backlash on this issue has been brewing for nearly a decade. I don't think many honest commentators would disagree that the TSA has bumbled and bungled its way to this impasse, even if those same folks would agree that the efforts of the TSA almost certainly have foiled or at the very least discouraged some form of terrorist activities in airports.

The TSA's obligation is to the safety of the public who employs them -- but this must extend not only to keeping terrorists off of planes, but also to keeping travelers safe from potentially harmful X-rays and extremely invasive pat-downs by sometimes unprofessional agents. The word that keeps coming up on all sides of the debate is "balance" -- in the links above you will find that pilots, aggrieved travelers and the head of the TSA alike all use the word to support their very much opposing positions. Everyone agrees that balance is what we need -- but they are standing on opposite ends of the beam.

Go Anyway (but let's get those X-ray concerns addressed already!),
Ed Hewitt
Features Editor
The Independent Traveler


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