Tag: strip search

Getting TSA to Look in the Mirror

If you travel by plane, you either hate the Transportation Security Administration, or will soon do so.  The TSA has unveiled a new security pat down which is about as close to a strip-search as you can get while still wearing clothes.

With a metal knee replacement I invariably set off the TSA metal detectors.  I can avoid a pat down by using the fancy new imaging machine where it is available.  But this machine images everything on the body, and that means everything.  The explicit nature of the pictures is reflected in the nick-name which I’m told TSA employees have applied to the machine.  Let your mind wander, but imagine a crude term about measuring the male genitalia.

The other alternative is to accept the pat down.  Until recently TSA employees used a hand-held wand to check for metal and did a limited hand check.  The new system eschews the wand and replaces it with searching hands climbing up the inside of the thighs – all the way up.

The only saving grace for me is when veterans do the check.  When they realize that I have an implant and go through the check weekly and sometimes daily, most of them take a more relaxed approach.  But the newer, and often more determined to do everything by the book, employees really mean it when they announce that they are about to check my thigh.

Like never before, the new procedure has set off public protests.  And anger could increase at Thanksgiving, when so many more people will be flying.  No one wants airplanes to be hijacked, but few people believe that the current system does much to safeguard us.  At least, much of what is done today looks to be “Security Theater,” meant to reassure rather than actually do improve security.

One possible alternative would be for airports to take back control of the process.  Reports the Washington Examiner:

[Rep. John] Mica, one of the authors of the original TSA bill, has recently written to the heads of more than 150 airports nationwide suggesting they opt out of TSA screening. “When the TSA was established, it was never envisioned that it would become a huge, unwieldy bureaucracy which was soon to grow to 67,000 employees,” Mica writes. “As TSA has grown larger, more impersonal, and administratively top-heavy, I believe it is important that airports across the country consider utilizing the opt-out provision provided by law.”

Private security personnel obviously could mimic the TSA’s worst practices.  But if there were multiple actors providing security services competition would encourage airports to look for improved techniques which would cost less, waste less time, and create less embarrassment.

The vast majority of the TSA personnel with whom I deal are polite and friendly.  Most actually are working, though it’s not clear their activities always benefit the public.  But they all seem to lack a sense of irony.

I enjoy wearing my Cato t-shirt with the P.J. O’Rourke quote about giving to power to government being like giving car keys and whiskey to a teenage boy.  I receive a lot of admiring comments on it–including from TSA employees.  Today it happened again, at Washington Dulles.  As I was waiting for my regular TSA-provided fondling experience down below.

It’s no knock on the individual employees to point out that the TSA as an agency is a perfect example of what P.J. was warning against.  Give Barack Obama & Co. this power and we are likely to lose our money, freedom, and dignity.

I’d like to believe we’ve entered a new political era in Washington, but I’ve worked through too many “new eras” to believe that this one is really new.  But a popular uprising about TSA de facto strip searches would be a good start.

Victory for Decency at the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court’s decision today in Safford Unified School District #1 et al. v. Redding was a victory for privacy and decency. The Court held that a middle school violated the Fourth Amendment rights of a thirteen-year-old girl by strip searching her in a failed effort to find Ibuprofen pills and an over-the-counter painkiller.

The Cato Institute filed an amicus brief, joined by the Rutherford Institute and the Goldwater Institute, opposing such abuses of school officials’ authority. The search in this case should have ended with the student’s backpack and pockets; forcing a teenage girl to pull her bra and panties away from her body for visual inspection is an invasion of privacy that must be reserved for extreme cases. School officials should be authorized to conduct such a search only when they have credible evidence that the student is in possession of objects posing a danger to the school and that the student has hidden them in a place that only a strip search will uncover.

Today’s decision should not come as a surprise. School officials were not granted unlimited police power in the seminal student search case, New Jersey v. T.L.O. Justice Stevens explored the limits of school searches in his partial concurrence and partial dissent, specifically mentioning strip searches. “To the extent that deeply intrusive searches are ever reasonable outside the custodial context, it surely must only be to prevent imminent, and serious harm.”

The Fourth Amendment exists to preserve a balance between the individual’s reasonable expectation of privacy and the state’s need for order and security. Unnecessarily traumatizing students with invasive and humiliating breaches of personal privacy upsets this balance. Today’s decision restores reasonable limits to student searches and provides valuable guidance to school officials.

Congress on Privacy: Schizophrenic or Lagging?

In the same bill that Congress limited the use of whole-body imaging or “strip-search machines” at airports (text of the amendment here), it required the Transportation Security Administration to study using facial and iris recognition to identify people in line for airport security checkpoints (Sec. 242 of House-passed version here).

So glimpses at de-identified bodies are a privacy outrage while massive biometric databases and records of people’s travels are good to go?

Not necessarily. Average people (and members of Congress) understand better what a look at the body is, but they don’t understand as well what biometric tracking and databasing of our movements means. So they’re quick to object to the former and lagging on the latter.

Those of us who understand the privacy consequences of government-deployed facial recognition and tracking must press to educate our less-well-versed fellow Americans.

House Votes against “Strip-Search” Machines

Yesterday the House adopted an amendment to the Transportation Security Administration Authorization Act that would prohibit the TSA from using Whole Body-Imaging machines for primary screening at airports and require the TSA to give passengers the option of a pat-down search in place of going through a WBI machine, among other things.

You can read the amendment here, and the roll call vote will soon be up here. Use it to decide whether to cheer or jeer your member of Congress.

More on strip-search machines here, here, and here.

Limiting the TSA’s Use of “Strip Search Machines”

I wrote here in February about the push and pull over “strip search machines,” also known as “whole-body imaging” and “millimeter wave scanning.”

The question is joined: How do you maintain privacy with a technology that’s fundamentally intrusive? Maybe by using it less. This week, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) introduced a bill to limit the use of whole-body imaging.

H.R. 2027, the Aircraft Passenger Whole-Body Imaging Limitations Act of 2009, would place several limits:

  • Whole-body imaging could not be the sole or primary method of screening a passenger, and it could only be used as a follow-up to other methods like metal detection.
  • Passengers would have the right to opt for a pat-down search instead of whole-body imaging.
  • Passengers subject to whole-body imaging would have to be provided information about the technology and the images it generates, on privacy policies, and the right to have the pat-down search instead.
  • Images of passengers generated by whole-body imaging technology could not be stored, transferred, shared, or copied in any form after the passenger has passed through the security system.

Most of these protections are already TSA policy, but agency policies are relatively easy to change compared to federal law. Without limitations like this, these machines are on the natural, mission-creepy path to becoming mandatory.

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.)

So this bill is a step forward, but from a very backwards position. Ultimately, as I wrote before, the solution is to return responsibility for security to the airlines and airports, who are most interested in and capable of balancing all the factors that go into safe travel, including passengers’ privacy, comfort, and peace of mind.

School Strips Student of Clothes, Rights

A middle-school student who was caught red-handed with prescription-strength ibuprofen (in violation of the school’s drug policy) implicated another 13-year-old girl, Savana Redding. On the sole basis of this accusation, school officials searched Savana’s backpack, finding no evidence of drug use, drug possession, or any other illegal or improper conduct. They then took the girl to the nurse’s office and ordered her to undress. Not finding any pills in Savana’s pants or shirt, the officials ordered the girl to pull out her bra and panties and move them to the side. The observation of Savana’s genital area and breasts also failed to reveal any contraband.

Savana’s mother, whom Savana had not been permitted to call before or during the strip search, sued the school district and officials for violating her daughter’s Fourth Amendment rights to be protected from unreasonable search and seizure. The trial court and a panel of the Ninth Circuit ruled against her, but the en banc Ninth Circuit reversed, finding the search unjustified and unreasonable in scope, and therefore unconstitutional. The Supreme Court granted the school district’s petition for review.

Cato, joined by the Rutherford Institute and Goldwater Institute, filed a brief supporting the Reddings’ suit, arguing that strip searches, particularly of students, are subject to a higher level of scrutiny than other kinds of searches. Such searches are reasonable only when school officials have highly credible evidence showing that (1) the student is in possession of objects posing a significant danger to the school and (2) the student has secreted the objects in a place only a strip search will uncover.

In this case, there was insufficient factual basis for the strip search and the search was not reasonably related and disproportionate to the school officials’ investigation. The Supreme Court should thus affirm the Ninth Circuit and establish that such searches may be undertaken only when compelling evidence suggests a strip search is necessary to preserve school safety and health.

Safford Unified School District No. 1 v. Redding will be argued at the Supreme Court on April 21.