Tag: airport security

Rep. Clyburn Wants Special Treatment at Airports

It’s fascinating to watch a member of Congress use a tragedy like Gabrielle Giffords’ shooting to seek advantage over us common folk. On Fox News Sunday this week, Representative James Clyburn (D-SC) suggested that Members of Congress should get special treatment at airports.

Airports are some of the safest places anyone can be. Don’t use your imagination—think about it: Airports teem with security personnel and security-conscious citizens. Because their travel schedules are generally unannounced, members of Congress are not any more exposed while traveling than during their other public movements. There is some risk—we know too well because of this weekend’s tragedy—when elected officials make announced public appearances, but that small risk is something they should generally continue to accept lest they fall even further out of touch with constituents.

It is vitally important that members of Congress experience air travel as the rest of us do. If they don’t, they will continue to impose its burdens on us without getting the valuable feedback of first-hand experience.

Conservatives, Liberals, and the TSA

Libertarians often debate whether conservatives or liberals are more friendly to liberty. We often fall back on the idea that conservatives tend to support economic liberties but not civil liberties, while liberals support civil liberties but not economic liberties – though this old bromide hardly accounts for the economic policies of President Bush or the war-on-drugs-and-terror-and-Iraq policies of President Obama.

Score one for the conservatives in the surging outrage over the Transportation Security Administration’s new policy of body scanners and intimate pat-downs. You gotta figure you’ve gone too far in the violation of civil liberties when you’ve lost Rick Santorum, George Will, Kathleen Parker, and Charles Krauthammer. (Gene Healy points out that conservatives are reaping what they sowed.)

Meanwhile, where are the liberals outraged at this government intrusiveness? Where is Paul Krugman? Where is Arianna? Where is Frank Rich? Where is the New Republic? Oh sure, civil libertarians like Glenn Greenwald have criticized TSA excesses. But mainstream liberals have rallied around the Department of Homeland Security and its naked pictures: Dana Milbank channels John (“phantoms of lost liberty”) Ashcroft: “Republicans are providing the comfort [to our enemies]. They are objecting loudly to new airport security measures.” Ruth Marcus: “Don’t touch my junk? Grow up, America.” Eugene Robinson: “Be patient with the TSA.” Amitai Etzioni in the New Republic: “In defense of the ‘virtual strip-search.’” And finally, the editors of the New York Times: ”attacks are purely partisan and ideological.”

Could this just be a matter of viewing everything through a partisan lens? Liberals rally around the DHS of President Obama and Secretary Napolitano, while conservatives criticize it? Maybe. And although Slate refers to the opponents of body-scanning as “paranoid zealots,” that term would certainly seem to apply to apply to Mark Ames and Yasha Levine of the Nation, who stomp their feet, get red in the face, and declare every privacy advocate from John Tyner (“don’t touch my junk”) on to be “astroturf” tools of “Washington Lobbyists and Koch-Funded Libertarians.” (Glenn Greenwald took the article apart line by line.)

Most Americans want to be protected from terrorism and also to avoid unnecessary intrusions on liberty, privacy, and commerce. Security issues can be complex. A case can be made for the TSA’s new procedures. But it’s striking to see how many conservatives think the TSA has gone too far, and how dismissive – even contemptuous – liberals are of rising concerns about liberty and privacy.

Privacy and the Common Good

Jim Harper’s post Monday, responding to communitarian Amitai Etzioni on “strip search” scanners at airports, gives me an opportunity to mount one of my hobbyhorses.

My beef with Etzioni’s conclusory argument isn’t just that, as Jim observes, he purports to “weigh” the individual right to privacy against the common good (here in the guise of “security”) without any real analysis of the magnitudes on both sides. It’s that his framing is fundamentally backwards. The importance of privacy is, to a great extent, a function of its collective dimension—a point to which you’d think a communitarian theorist who’s written an entire book on privacy would be more keenly attuned. If I may indulge in a little self-quotation:

[W]hen we talk about our First Amendment right to free speech, we understand it has a certain dual character: That there’s an individual right grounded in the equal dignity of free citizens that’s violated whenever I’m prohibited from expressing my views. But also a common or collective good that is an important structural precondition of democracy. As a citizen subject to democratic laws, I have a vested interest in the freedom of political discourse whether or not I personally want to [engage in]–or even listen to–controversial speech. Looking at the incredible scope of documented intelligence abuses from the ’60s and ’70s, we can add that I have an interest in knowing whether government officials are trying to silence or intimidate inconvenient journalists, activists, or even legislators. Censorship and arrest are blunt tactics I can see and protest; blackmail or a calculated leak that brings public disgrace are not so obvious. As legal scholar Bill Stuntz has argued, the Founders understood the structural value of the Fourth Amendment as a complement to the First, because it is very hard to make it a crime to pray the wrong way or to discuss radical politics if the police can’t arbitrarily see what people are doing or writing in their homes.

I’m actually somewhat sympathetic to the notion that the individual harms that result from strip scanners are relatively slight, especially when passengers can opt for a pat down instead. In the worst case scenario, some unscrupulous TSA employee might find a way to save and circulate some of these blurry quasi-nude images, the embarrassment potential of which is likely to be mitigated by the fact that the x-ray view doesn’t really show an identifiable face.

I’m much more concerned about the social effect of making such machines commonplace—of creating a general norm that people who wish to engage in routine travel must expect to expose themselves in this way. As Michel Foucault famously observed, surveillance is not merely the passive gathering of information; it exerts a “disciplinary” power, creating what he called “docile bodies.” The airport becomes a schoolhouse whose lesson is that not even the most intimate spaces escape the gaze of authority.

In his fine book The Naked Crowd, legal scholar Jeff Rosen recounts presenting his students and other audiences with a hypothetical choice between going through a strip scanner and a “Blob Machine”—a similar scanner programmed to filter out the passenger’s body image and project any foreign objects (as determined by density) on a generic wireframe mannequin. Though he assured them that the Blob Machine was just as accurate at detecting hidden objects, he found that in every group some significant number of people still preferred to subject themselves to the strip-scanner, in what Rosen calls “a ritualistic demonstration of their own purity and trustworthiness.” But there may be more to it than that. To expose oneself, render oneself vulnerable, is also closely linked to rituals of subordination—not just in human cultures, but in the animal kingdom. Think of the pack dog signaling his recognition of the alpha male’s (or owner’s) dominance by rolling over to expose his belly. In the context of pervasive fear of terrorism, this kind of routine exposure is a way of reassuring ourselves of the power of our protectors, quite apart from whatever immediate utility the strip-scanners have as a detection and deterrence mechanism. We ought to be a little wary of any “security” measures that seem to feed into that psychological mechanism.

While I don’t think these sorts of considerations ought to be dispositive by themselves in particular circumstances where a security measure is otherwise justifiable in more conventional cost-benefit terms, I think a communitarian commentator in particular ought to be a lot more sensitive to the cumulative cultural effect of many such measures. Formal institutions and rules are important to the preservation of free societies, but so are background norms and expectations. A society that comes to accept as normal the routine observation of our naked bodies by authority as an incident to travel is, I think, in danger of losing some important cultural capital.

TSA on the Prowl for Embezzlers

The TSA is exceeding its authority.

At what point does an airport search step over the line?

How about when they start going through your checks, and the police call your husband, suspicious you were clearing out the bank account?

This kind of thing was supposed to stop after the TSA revised its policies a year ago. The revision came in the wake of the unconstitutional seizure of Campaign for Liberty staffer Steven Bierfeldt for carrying cash donations (prompting a lawsuit from the ACLU). A federal judge had already determined that fake passports found on an airline passenger were inadmissible in court.

The TSA is not a law enforcement agency. TSA screeners aren’t supposed to search for anything beyond weapons and explosives. Or, as TSA policy currently reads, “Screening may not be conducted to detect evidence of crimes unrelated to transportation security.”

Kathy Parker, a business support manager for a large bank, was flying with a deposit slip and several checks made out to her and her husband. TSA screeners suspected she was skipping town in the midst of a “divorce situation.”

Two Philadelphia police officers joined at least four TSA officers who had gathered around her. After conferring with the TSA screeners, one of the Philadelphia officers told her he was there because her checks were numbered sequentially, which she says they were not.

“It’s an indication you’ve embezzled these checks,” she says the police officer told her. He also told her she appeared nervous. She hadn’t before that moment, she says.

She protested when the officer started to walk away with the checks. “That’s my money,” she remembers saying. The officer’s reply? “It’s not your money.”

Glad to see that we’re in good hands, and that no one has lost focus on the aviation security mission at TSA. Read the whole thing.

Stunner: Strip-Search Machine Used to Ogle

An airport security staffer faces discipline after using a whole-body imaging machine to ogle a co-worker, according to this report. It’s another signal of what’s to come when the machines are in regular use. (In a previous post, I aired my doubts about the veracity of reports that a famous Indian movie star had been exposed, but the story foretells the future all the same.)

I’ve written before that whole-body imaging machines in airports create risks to privacy despite TSA’s efforts to minimize those risks with carefully designed rules and practices.

Rules, of course, were made to be broken, and it’s only a matter of time — federal law or not — before TSA agents without proper supervision find a way to capture images contrary to policy. (Agent in secure area guides Hollywood starlet to strip search machine, sends SMS message to image reviewer, who takes camera-phone snap. TMZ devotes a week to the story, and the ensuing investigation reveals that this has been happening at airports throughout the country to hundreds of women travelers.)

Rules against misuse of whole-body imaging are fine, but they are not a long-term, effective protection against abuse of “strip-search machines.”

I Told You So?

The story that images of a film star produced by whole-body imaging were copied and circulated among airport personnel in London are a little too good to be true for critics of the technology. It may yet be proven a joke or hoax, and airport officials are denying that it happened, saying that it “simply could not be true.”

But if Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan was exposed by the technology, it validates more quickly than I expected the concern that controls on body scanning images would ultimately fail.

Here’s how I wrote about the fate of domestic U.S. proscriptions on copying images from whole-body imaging machines in an earlier post:

Rules, of course, were made to be broken, and it’s only a matter of time — federal law or not — before TSA agents without proper supervision find a way to capture images contrary to policy. (Agent in secure area guides Hollywood starlet to strip search machine, sends SMS message to image reviewer, who takes camera-phone snap. TMZ devotes a week to the story, and the ensuing investigation reveals that this has been happening at airports throughout the country to hundreds of women travelers.)

I have my doubts that this incident actually happened as reported, but it is not impossible, and over time misuse of the technology is likely. That’s a cost of whole-body imaging that should be balanced against its security benefits.