Tag: strip-search machines

“You could use it at a specific event. You could use it at a shooting-prone location…”

That’s NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly touting a new technology called “terahertz imaging detection” to a local news outlet.

Terahertz radiation is electromagnetic waves at the high end of the infrared band, just below the microwave band. The waves can penetrate a wide variety of non-conducting materials, such as clothing, paper, cardboard, wood, masonry, plastic, and ceramics, but they can’t penetrate metal or water. Thus, directing terahertz radiation at a person and capturing the waves that bounce off them can reveal what is under their clothes without the discomfort and danger of going “hands-on” in a search for weapons. Many materials have unique spectral “fingerprints” in the terahertz range, so terahertz imaging can be tuned to reveal only certain materials. (In case you’re wondering, I got this information off the top of my head…)

Will the machines be tuned to display only particular materials? Or will they display images of breasts, buttocks, and crotches? The TSA’s “strip-search machines” got the moniker they have because they did the latter—until the agency tardily re-configured them.

Then there’s the flip-side of not going “hands-on.” Terahertz imaging detection doesn’t natively reveal to the person being searched that law enforcement has picked him or her out for scrutiny. A pat-down certainly lets the individual know he or she is being searched, positioning one to observe and challenge one’s treatment as a suspect. Terahertz imaging lacks this natural—if insufficient—check on abuse.

So terahertz imaging is not just a “hi-tech pat-down.” Its potential takes what would be a pat-down and makes it into a secret, but intimate, visual examination—a surreptitious strip-search. Pat-downs and secret strip-searches are very different things, and it is not necessarily reasonable, where a pat-down might be called for, to use terahertz imaging.

And that brings us to the fundamental problem with Commissioner Kelly’s proffer to use this technology at a “specific event” or at a “shooting-prone location.” These contexts do not create the individualized suspicion that Fourth Amendment law demands when government agents are going to examine intimate details of a person’s body and concealed possessions.

It is certainly possible to devise a terahertz imaging device and a set of use protocols that are constitutional and appropriate for routine, domestic law enforcement, but Commissioner Kelly hasn’t thought of one, and I can’t either.

Consider the dollar costs and potential health effects of terahertz imaging detection, it might just be that the pat-downs pass muster far better than the high-tech gadgetry.

TSA’s Partial Retreat From Full-Body Scans

It’s tempting to believe that the Transportation Security Administration’s move to change the software in strip-search machines is a response to the court ruling finding that it violated the law in rolling out the machines, but it’s almost surely coincidence.

The new software will show items that the software deems suspicious on a generic outline of a body rather than showing a detailed body image. The change will indeed reduce the invasiveness of the machine strip-search process. And because the image is less revealing, it can be viewed in the screening area instead of at a remote location. That means there doesn’t need to be a person dedicated to looking at denuded images of travelers. A major cost of running these machines—payroll—drops by a substantial margin.

The software will almost certainly not do as good a job of discovering hidden weapons as a human looking at a detailed image would. If it’s calibrated to over-report, TSA agents will rightly start to ignore its alerts on belt buckles and underwire bras. If it’s calibrated to under-report, well, it might fail to alert on an actual weapon or bomb. But those things are exceedingly rare, and the increased risk probably won’t make a difference.

In fact, that’s the interesting thing happening here: the TSA is allowing a small increase in risk in exchange for large gains in privacy and cost savings. The reason it took years of complaints, litigation, legislation, and other conflict is because the TSA did not analyze the risks and its responses before going forward with strip-search machines as it did. Trial-and-error isn’t costly to the government. The taxpayer fronts the money and gives up the privacy.

None of this means the TSA has now gotten the balance right. The airport security gauntlet will still be an overwrought mess and an affront to constitutional liberty. We will have to remain insistent on principle, on dignity and privacy, and on sound risk management while TSA gets a public relations bump from being less awful than it was before.

Should TSA Change Its Policy?

News that Transportation Security Administration officers required a 95-year-old cancer patient to remove her adult diaper for search lit up the social media this weekend. It’s reminiscent of the recent story where a 6-year-old girl got the pat-down because she didn’t hold still in the strip-search machine. TSA administrator John Pistole testified to a Senate hearing that the agency would change its policy about children shortly thereafter.

So, should the TSA change policy once again? Almost certainly. Will it ever arrive at balanced policies that aren’t punctuated by outrages like this? Almost certainly not.

You see, the TSA does not seek policies that anyone would call sensible or balanced. Rather, it follows political cues, subject to the bureaucratic prime directive described by Cato chairman emeritus and distinguished senior economist Bill Niskanen long ago: maximize discretionary budget.

When the TSA’s political cues pointed toward more intrusion, that’s where it went. Recall the agency’s obsession with small, sharp things early in its tenure, and the shoe fetish it adopted after Richard Reid demonstrated the potential hazards of footwear. Next came liquids after the revelation of a bomb plot around smuggling in sports bottles. And in December 2009, the underwear bomber focused the TSA on everyone’s pelvic region. Woe to the traveler whose medical condition requires her to wear something concealing the government’s latest fixation.

The TSA pursues the bureaucratic prime directive—maximize budget—by assuming, fostering, and acting on the maximum possible threat. So a decade after 9/11, TSA and Department of Homeland Security officials give strangely time-warped commentary whenever they speechify or testify, recalling the horrors of 2001 as if it’s 2003. The prime directive also helps explain why TSA has expanded its programs following each of the attempts on aviation since 9/11, even though each of them has failed. For a security agency, security threats are good for business. TSA will never seek balance, but will always promote threat as it offers the only solution: more TSA.

Because of countervailing threats to its budget—sufficient outrage on the part of the public—TSA will withdraw from certain policies from time to time. But there is no capacity among the public to sustain “outrage” until the agency is actually managing risk in a balanced and cost-effective way. (You can ignore official claims of “risk-based” policies until you’ve actually seen the risk management and cost-benefit documents.)

TSA should change its policy, yes, but its fundamental policies will not change. Episodes like this will continue indefinitely against a background of invasive, overwrought airline security that suppresses both the freedom to travel and the economic well-being of the country.

In a 2005 Reason magazine “debate” on airline security, I described the incentive structure that airlines and airports face, which is much more conducive to nesting security with convenience, privacy, savings, and overall traveler comfort and satisfaction. The threat of terrorism has only dropped since then. We should drop the TSA.

House Approps Strips TSA of Strip-Search Funds

The fiscal 2012 Department of Homeland Security spending bill is starting to make its way through the process, and the House Appropriations Committee said in a release today that “the bill does not provide $76 million requested by the President for 275 additional advanced inspection technology (AIT) scanners nor the 535 staff requested to operate them.”

If the House committee’s approach carries the day, there won’t be 275 more strip-search machines in our nation’s airports. No word on whether the committee will defund the operations of existing strip-search machines.

Saving money and reducing privacy invasion? Sounds like a win-win.

States Resisting Federal Power

If two points are sufficient to draw a trend line, then state resistance to federal authority is growing.

I reported earlier on my recent testimony to the Florida legislature on REAL ID. The state’s legislators have taken notice of what the motor vehicle bureaucrats have been doing in collaboration with federal officials, and they’re not too happy.

Yesterday, I was pleased to testify in the Pennsylvania legislature, where legislation to push back against the Transportation Security Administration’s strip/grope policy at airports has been introduced. The Constitution’s Supremacy Clause seems to make federal law paramount, but states have many angles for challenging federal power, especially when it’s as flawed and reactive as the TSA’s airport checkpoint policies.

Obama Administration to Take a Stand on Privacy, But it Ain’t Fixing the Strip-Search Machine Morass

At least one report has it that a Commerce Department official will announce the Obama administration’s support for “baseline privacy legislation” at a Wednesday Senate Commerce Committee hearing.

You mean, like, the Fourth Amendment? If only it were so.

The action is in the House Government Reform Committee, which is holding a hearing on the Transportation Security Administration’s strip-search machines. What’s the administration’s “baseline privacy policy” on that?

I’ve already written two posts in the last year (1, 2) titled “Physician, Heal Thyself”…

Prediction: DHS Programs Will Create Privacy Concerns in 2011

The holiday travel season this year revealed some of the real defects in the Transportation Security Administration’s new policy of subjecting select travelers to the “option” of going through airport strip-search machines or being subjected to an intrusive pat-down more akin to a groping. Anecdotes continue to come forth, including the recent story of a rape victim who was arrested at an airport in Austin, TX after refusing to let a TSA agent feel her breasts.

Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security is working on the “next big thing”: body-scanning everywhere. This “privacy impact assessment” from DHS’s Science and Technology Directorate details a plan to use millimeter wave—a technology in strip-search machines—along with other techniques, to examine people from a distance, not just at the airport but anywhere DHS wants.

With time to observe TSA procedures this holiday season, I’ve noticed that it takes a very long time to get people through strip-search machines. In Milwaukee, the machines were cordoned off and out of use the Monday after Christmas Day because they needed to get people through. Watch for privacy concerns and sheer inefficiency to join up when TSA pushes forward with universal strip/grope requirements.

And the issue looks poised to grow in the new year. Republican ascendancy in the House coincides with their increasing agitation about this government security excess.

I’ll be speaking at an event next Thursday, January 6th, called ”The Stripping of Freedom: A Careful Scan of TSA Security Procedures.” It’s hosted by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) at the Carnegie Institute for Science in Washington, DC.

EPIC recently wrote a letter asking Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to task the DHS Privacy Committee (or “DPIAC,” on which I serve) with studying the impact of the body scanner program on individuals’ constitutional and statutory rights:

The TSA’s deployment of body scanners as the primary screening technique in American airports has raised widespread public concerns about the protection of privacy. It is difficult to imagine that there is a higher priority issue for the DPIAC in 2011 than a comprehensive review of the TSA airport body scanner program.

Will the Secretary ask her expert panel for a thorough documented review? Wait and see.

Whatever happens there, privacy concerns with DHS programs will be big in 2011.