Until the last couple of months, these devices were never really discussed. In fact, without much fanfare or opposition, 19 airports in the United States were already equipped with body scanners years before the infamous Underpants Bomber attempted to blow up an airplane over Detroit on Christmas Day last year. Some of the airports already sporting body scanners include Los Angeles, Denver, Baltimore, Albuquerque, New York (Kennedy), Dallas, Detroit, Las Vegas, Miami, and Washington, D.C. (Reagan National).
Incidentally, I'm flying round-trip to Los Angeles later next month, and I never look forward to the endless and infamously long security lines at LAX. Now I get to look forward to a potential body scan at the end of the insufferable and soul-crushing rainbow.
Nevertheless, the latest wave of body scanners are scheduled to be fully installed by the end of June and were purchased with $25 million in stimulus money. Following the Underpants Bomber attempt, President Obama has called for "hundreds more" on top of this wave of 150 -- even though these scanners aren't equipped to detect the kind of device used by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on Christmas Day.
So we're talking about dozens of American airports equipped with these scanners, and they aren't even capable of detecting the next generation of explosive devices employed by terrorists like Abdulmutallab and the Shoe Bomber.
What we have here is a dangerous escalation in the government's ability to infringe upon our privacy for the sake of a marginal increase in security -- and they're still unable to detect explosives in a guy's shorts. But we have to have them, you know, or else.
Homeland Security and Transportation Security Administration officials, however, have reassured us that our privacy (and dignity) will remain intact. I can't see how that's possible. But taken at its word, the TSA has adopted several safeguards to thwart any would-be privacy violations.
According to the TSA website, the "officer who views the image is remotely located, in a secure resolution room and never sees the passenger." Additionally, the scanners blur facial features; the computers can't "store, print, transmit or save the image" and "all machines are delivered to airports with these functions disabled." Also, no camera phones or other handheld devices are allowed.
This is all good news, and the TSA should be applauded for at least trying. But it simply isn't enough. "Life," as they say, "finds a way."
Anyone who is at least moderately capable of using a Windows PC knows about the CTRL-Prt Scr function to create screen captures that save to your clipboard for pasting into another document. But let's give the TSA the benefit of the doubt and say they disabled screen caps as well. Who, then, is patting down the TSA officer to verify he or she doesn't have a camera phone on their person? Does the TSA official get scanned for hidden cameras before he or she sits down at the computer? We don't know the answers to any of these questions, and we should.
Despite a myriad of safeguards, other forms of privacy infringements, such as identity theft, are reported all the time. There's no reason to believe that a TSA officer (I hasten to underscore: not
The 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads in part: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated ..." I would suggest that a government worker gawking at your naked body -- even anonymously -- constitutes an unreasonable search.
The irony here is that we have a constitutional scholar in the White House (a president who I otherwise support) and yet he's more than tripling the number of scanners in American airports. It's disappointing and discouraging to say the least.
Supporters of the body scanners also tend to ask: what about strip searches? They've been around forever, yes? Strip searches, compared with body scans, are far less frequent because they require greater cause, and they're much more time consuming for officers -- say nothing of the potential lawsuits. Short of a strip search, a pat-down doesn't involve anyone seeing or potentially recording a naked body. Not only that, but passengers who are being strip searched tend to be understandably more surly and therefore more aware.
Comparatively, based upon on various news reports, passengers seem to be more than happy to be scanned. Almost giddy about it. It's remarkable, but not surprising that we tend to be so merrily compliant. Such acquiescence to authority also lends itself to being taken advantage of. Put another way, are you more aware of foul play when you're happy or when you're angry and suspicious?
That's really the heart of the matter. As with any authoritarian violation of privacy or liberty, such infringements are always incremental. They're generally never enacted with a bang, but a slow boil. The body scanners are yet another layer of indignity added to a growing list of indignities involved in air travel -- a list that begins with merely taking off our shoes and belts.
It's difficult to tell where it all ends. Airline travel will never be 100% safe, but the truth is your odds of being killed by a terrorist aboard an airplane are an astronomical 1 in 10,000,000, according to Nate Silver. You're more like to win the lottery or to be struck by lightning multiple times. Your odds of dying in a catastrophic asteroid strike are 1 in 200,000. Your odds of be killed by yourself are around 1 in 121.
In Dumb & Dumber, when Jim Carrey's Lloyd is told the odds of Lauren Holly falling in love with him are 1 in a million, Lloyd pauses, then replies with excitement, "So you're saying there's a chance!"
Even if the body scanners were capable of detecting the Underpants Bomber's incendiary device, I don't believe that a 1 in 10,000,000 chance of being killed by an airborne terrorist attack justifies the indignity and privacy issues raised by these scanners (say nothing of strip searches).
For me personally, I'm not simply concerned about my own privacy and dignity, but that of my wife and teen-aged daughter. Who's catching a glimpse of their naked bodies? Are they trustworthy? What threat justifies this intrusion? And, in the grand scheme, will it make them safer? I can't conclude with anything other than a very surly and suspicious, No.