Friday, September 3, 2010

Electronic Strip Searches: Threat to Privacy or Necessary New Step in Security?

"You know those controversial TSA full-body scanners? Well,
they are coming to airports here in New York next month.
Great. Normally I take a Xanax before I fly, now I have to
take a Viagra." - Jimmy Fallon

The TSA’s body scanners, or ‘millimetre wave’ and 'backscatter’ machines, have created quite a stir around the world ever since they were rushed out to be included in several airports in the U.S. and Europe because of an attempted terrorist attack. A man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, is said to have supposedly had plastic explosives sewn into his underpants and attempted to detonate it. These scanners were said to help foil such attempts in the future. The only problem is that even an engineer who worked on the scanners said they wouldn’t detect chemicals, like the bomber used, or light plastics.

For anyone familiar with my blog I’m sure you will know that I am very much against this new form of privacy invasion. In fact, several weeks ago I had my own encounter with these machines for the first time when I flew to visit family.

While going through security at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport I approached the first TSA agent whom I gave my I.D. and boarding pass to inspect. Having worn shorts the man saw my prosthetic leg and asked if I’d like to try out these new scanners that are much quicker and easier than having to be frisked. Having read about these scanners many months back and their privacy implications I politely said no, and that I’d like to just go through security as I usually do. Usually I walk through the metal detector and because of my prothetic leg I obviously beep off (though oddly enough I have gone through some metal detectors without them going off a handful of times before) and then they have a male security agent pat me down and wave the metal detecting wand over my body. Ever since 9/11 they also use a cloth to swab my hands, shoes, and prosthetic leg to check for any bomb material residue. Luckily I’ve never had any false positives (I’m not sure if false positives are very common, assuming they’ve happened at all, though with any kind of scanning software there’s bound to be glitches and false positives occurring at some point).

This time was different, however. After refusing to go through their strip search machine, I waited patiently for someone to come over and perform the usual pat down, and while I waited I saw one of the TSA agents tell others in line to try the new security device. He failed to mention to these unsuspecting people - some of whom were young girls - that an image of their naked body would be displayed in front of who knows who. For all you know they have a small group of people viewing them and mocking or “getting off” on those who go through, like young girls for example, since I saw one of the TSA agents stare at some young girls like pieces of meat as he told them to go into the scanner (more on this possibility later).

Finally I was called over to do the customary search, but this time I was labeled an “opt out.” Several times they yelled out, ‘We have an opt out over here,’ or something to that effect. I felt this was an attempt to embarrass someone who didn’t want to submit to their Orwellian methods and wanted to humiliate me. And in addition to doing the usual wand, pant down, and scanning for explosive materials, both on the usual places and on the inside and outside of my bag as well. Something that was never done before. All because I didn’t want some asshole to see my naked body.

Even more, these assholes aren’t educating those who choose to go into the scanners. True, thankfully, in Phoenix you are not required at the present time to go through the scanners as in some places, but the fact that they go through your bags for no reason at all and treat you as if you’ve done something wrong is a huge violation of my rights. Especially when there is no evidence whatsoever that any one of those TSA agents could cite that would give them probable cause in needing to open and peek inside my bag while swabbing for explosive material.

Remember the TSA agent who seemed a tad bit too interested in those younger girls (for the record they seemed to be about 15-17 years of age but I have no idea for sure)? Well it’s already happened where the TSA not only printed out photos of a boarding passenger but passed copies of the picture to several others throughout an airport in London of Indian film star Shahrukh Khan. The risk is too great to allow potential child molesters and just plain unethical individuals to look at young children and teenagers. Not to mention those who would rather not have nearly the entire airport staff view your naked body.

Another similar incident took place in London's Heathrow Airport on March 10, 2010 when 29 year old Jo Margetson went through a body scanner and her co-worker John Laker, 25, took a picture of her naked body and remarked, “I love those gigantic tits.” Margetson has reportedly made a statement to the press that she has since been “totally traumatized” by the event. I don’t blame her!

Update: It’s been brought to my attention that the reports about Ms. Margetson were inaccurate. They give a slightly different story than the inaccurate, and not to mention unauthorized, story the press put out. It seems Ms. Margetson did not make any statements to the press about the incident and what her co-worker said is also inaccurate, though I wasn’t told exactly what was said. She also did not “accidentally” walk into a scanner. The Press Complaints Commission has since resolved the issue. However, she was scanned without her permission and complained to her employer about it. I received this information from, apparently, Ms. Margetson herself who left a comment on this post, but asked that the comment not be published. - 9-5-10

Another incident took place in Florida when Rolando Negrin beat his supervisor with his baton after going through a body scanner during a training exercise at Miami International Airport and being continuously teased about his small penis.

In fact, here is one example of the images from the TSA’s own website of what will be seen when you go through the scanners. This is clearly going overboard.

Here are a few other images that the scans produced:

Other than the privacy issues, which we’ve seen several breaches of privacy already in this short amount of time during the scanners’ use, there are also legal issues. Some groups are arguing that the scanners violate child porn laws since when minors pass through the scanners images their naked bodies will be taken and saved on a computer and it will be possible to print and/or transmit these images, unlike what the TSA has claimed, though they’ve since fessed up about the truth. Though oddly enough, on the TSA website it still says that,

Advanced imaging technology cannot store, print, transmit or save the image, and the image is automatically deleted from the system after it is cleared by the remotely located security officer. (assessed 8-24-10)

I call bullshit.

Of course child porn laws likely won’t be a strong legal case against the scanners since they can simply make it so no person under the age of 18 will have to go through the scanners.

Finally, there have been some health concerns about these scanners as well. A study done at Columbia University has shown that there is an increased risk of skin cancer due to the doses of x-rays emitted by the scanners which could be up to 20 times higher than originally estimated. Dr. David Brenner, head of Columbia University’s center for radiological research, warns that children and people with gene mutations whose bodies are less able to repair damage to their DNA are most at risk.

“'The individual risks associated with X-ray backscatter scanners are probably extremely small. If all 800 million people who use airports every year were screened with X-rays then the very small individual risk multiplied by the large number of screened people might imply a potential public health or societal risk. The population risk has the potential to be significant,” said Brenner.

After looking at all of the evidence what have we found? For starters, the TSA lied about how detailed the images were and falsely claimed that the images taken could not be stored or transmitted. Luckily, through the Freedom of Information Act, much of this finally came to light, unfortunately, at airports around the world this information is not being passed on to the passengers and the media has been largely silent on the issue.

Second, despite the scanners’ short time in use, they’ve already caused several privacy concerns, both serious and more minor, like the man who was teased about the size of his genitals.

Third, this technology is one step closer to making George Orwell’s novel 1984 an accurate future for all of us. Parts of it have already become reality, and from what I’ve read, the mind reading technology that is used in the book is currently in development. Sometime in the future “thoughtcrime” will become a reality. And what a sad, fucked up reality that will be.

Of course, these scanners seem to measure much the same things as “lie detectors.” In fact, with the interrogations shown near the end it seems exactly like a lie detector, and all they do is detect things like rapid pulse, perspiration, rate of breathing, etc. and don’t actually tell the examiner if you’re lying. Similarly, these new scanners won’t be able to detect “thoughtcrime” but if a person is nervous! Anyone who is nervous, a women on PMS, or if you’re in a hurry and upset because you’re late for your flight, you better stay away from these machines because you might be pegged as a “terrorist” and thrown in jail, but only after beating beat to hell by security of course.

So, is this technology a necessary new step in security or a tremendous privacy risk? Only if you have your head stuck up your ass will you believe the first answer.