The TSA: Privacy, Pat Downs, and Power

A full body scan of an anonymous person at an airport. The TSA official here will not see the actual person scanned, but only an image like this.

In a witheringly sarcastic post that begins, “You asked for it,” the Transportation Security Administration official blog shows a set of images taken from a millimeter wave scanner, possibly the TSA’s most controversial technology in use today. The machine emits waves at an exact frequency, one at which clothing is not visible to the scanner. So, in effect, the machine performs a “virtual strip search” of the subject. Any contraband that the person is carrying is detected and rendered by the machine, allowing a TSA officer to know whether a person is carrying things they shouldn’t, without the unpleasantness of a pat down. Another technology also in use is the backscatter scanning machine, which is very similar to the millimeter wave scanner.

So, as I’m sure many of us are already aware, there is a lot of controversy about this practice. Many feel as though their privacy is being violated by this involuntary scan, which is pretty understandable. The image rendered by the scanner is a nude one (though some researchers are working on impenetrable undergarments), so whichever TSA officer is sitting in front of the computer screen is able to see any objects that shouldn’t be on the person’s body, such as a weapon, explosives, or drugs. Of course, the officer reviewing these images cannot see the actual person going into the scanner, as his or her office is far away and out of sight of people being scanned.

A little aside – If a person really strongly objects to this scan, they can choose to have a full-body pat down instead. This is much more invasive in a physical way of course, but it saves the person from a visually “invasive” scan. Just thought I’d mention that!

Down to business: Is the TSA overstepping moral boundaries? Have they been allowed to take the nation’s privacy into their own hands to an extreme degree? My answer is no. Well, mostly no at least. While the system currently in place to screen for weapons and other contraband is far from perfect, I think it’s the best that can be expected, at least for now. The images rendered by the scanners can hardly be said to be provocative, so few people should worry about any TSA officials being aroused by their “naked” bodies. Now, I’ll admit this is a pretty feeble point. But worry not! I have other reasons for my thoughts on this.

Ever since the events of September 11, 2001, the US government took on an entirely new, much more aggressive approach to national (or “homeland”) security, especially in the air. The fact that the terrorists who seized the airplanes used in the 9/11 attacks were armed with knives (which they used to kill the pilots) showed that even lethal weaponry can be well-concealed. To me, this really highlights the importance of comprehensive screening of potential airline passengers. Now, I’m not saying that every person hoping to board a plane should be rigorously checked for anything that might be possibly used as a weapon. I am saying though (perhaps in contrast to that oh-so-famous Benjamin Franklin quote about liberty) that sometimes people need to think of the world in terms larger than themselves.

This scan is hardly invasive or offensive, and gives only an vague rendering of the person’s “intimate anatomy.” These images are less revealing and personal than an illustration in an anatomy textbook, and the entire operation is performed anonymously. Now, some propose that this represents the beginning of a slippery slope toward a police state-style security apparatus in airports, and effectively say that it won’t be long before TSA officials are performing public colonoscopies in the pursuit of justice. Besides being a flimsy argument to start with, this assumes that a pattern of ever-more ridiculous security measures is in place, or that there are signs of it. What signs are there? The millimeter wave scanner was implemented a few years ago, and things haven’t changed since.

Even if they did, it would hardly be too late. If Americans are lobbying now for a loosening of airline security, then they could certainly do so again in the future, if more signs of a worsening situation arose. Frankly, there aren’t lives on the line when a person is scanned by millimeter waves. There are when someone slips a gun past security at an airport.

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