Tag: strip-search machines

EPIC: Suspend Airport Body Scanners

Last week, the Electronic Privacy Information Center released a petition from a group it spearheaded, asking the Department of Homeland Security to suspend deployment of whole-body imaging (aka “strip-search machines”) at airports.

The petition is a thorough attack on the utility of the machines, the process (or lack of process) by which DHS has moved forward on deployment, and the suitability of the privacy protections the agency has claimed for the machines and computers that display denuded images of air travelers.

The petition sets up a variety of legal challenges to the use of the machines and the process DHS has used in deploying them.

Whole-body imaging was in retreat in the latter part of last year when an amendment to severely limit their use passed the House of Representatives. The December 25 terror attempt, in which a quantity of explosives was smuggled aboard a U.S.-bound airplane in a passenger’s underpants, gave the upper hand to the strip-search machines. But the DHS has moved forward precipitously with detection technology before, wasting millions of dollars. It may be doing so again.

My current assessment remains that strip-search machines provide a small margin of security at a very high risk to privacy. TSA efforts to control privacy risks have been welcome, though they may not be enough. The public may rationally judge that the security gained is not worth the privacy lost.

Wouldn’t it be nice if decisions about security were handled in a voluntary rather than a coercive environment? With airlines providing choice to consumers about security and privacy trade-offs? As it is, with government-run airline security, all will have to abide by the choices of the group that “wins” the debate.

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.”

The Department of Sneak-a-Peek

Big_Sis_PeakThe Drudge Report’s provocative banner this afternoon combines with other news to suggest a homeland security trend: sneakin’ a peek.

The other story is the question whether the nominee to head the Transportation Security Admnistration violated federal privacy laws as an FBI agent, then omitted key information in reporting it to Congress. Robert O’Harrow of the Washington Post (returning to the privacy beat!) reports that Erroll Southers, a former FBI agent, made inconsistent statements to Congress about wrongly accessing confidential criminal records about his estranged wife’s new boyfriend. (More here.)

That was 20 years ago. Being fully transparent about it today would almost certainly have prevented it from being disqualifying. But over the last 20 years, data collection has grown massively, and federal access to personal data has grown — including access by the TSA. Data about the appearance of your naked body may be on the very near horizon.

Southers’ problem with sneaking a peek at confidential records — and whatever cover-up or oversight in his reporting of it to Congress — signal precisely the wrong thing at a time when people rightly want their security not to be the undoing of privacy.

WaPo: Too Dismissive of Privacy Concerns

The Washington Post writes, “There’s nothing to fear from the use of full-body scanners at airports.”

That’s a little too dismissive. While it’s true that TSA has done much to limit the privacy threats, this is a fundamentally invasive technology.

I was particularly struck by this doe-eyed argument: “Officers in [the] remote screening room are prohibited from bringing in cellphones, cameras or any device with a camera.”

Here’s how I wrote about the fate of that rule 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.)

My error was to say it would be SMS. In the Washington Post’s account, TSA screeners communicate by wireless headset. (I don’t remember how they communicated in the demonstration I saw in Detroit.)

In college, I worked at a bar, and at the door of this bar it was customary to say at appropriate moments, “Did you get those books?” or “Did you get that book?” Everyone knew what these phrases meant and trained their eyes accordingly. I’m sorry if that was crude.

I’m more sorry if nobody on the editorial board at the Post recalls the vigor and ingenuity of youth. There is not “nothing to fear” from the use of full-body scanners.

Technology Clarifies Debate About Whole-Body Imaging Technology

I was dismayed today to listen to a recorded radio program in which James Carafano of the Heritage Foundation debated Michael German of the ACLU about the whole-body imaging systems being considered for airports after the Christmas attempt to light a bomb on a flight into Detroit.

Carafano, who I like personally, is a careless debater. He misstated the law, insulted a caller to the radio program, and misstated people’s names as he mischaracterized their views—in particular, my name and my views.

The segment was recorded, so we can capture exactly what Carafano said:

When the Transportation Security Administration rolled out this technology, they went through a very long and detailed consultation period with privacy and civil liberties groups including Jim Lindsey at Cato. I remember Jim Lindsey, when we had a session on privacy and civil liberties, stood up and complimented Secretary Chertoff, and said, “Look, this is something that you’ve actually done right. You’ve gone out to the stakeholder community, and you’ve gone over the procedures with us and we’ve come up with procedures that we’re very, very comfortable with.” So I think the privacy issue is really a non-issue.

At a Heritage event in June, 2008, I rose to rebut how Secretary Chertoff dismissed privacy advocates. He said privacy advocates prefer “no-security” airlines and that they want people to use fraudulent documents. As I gently chastised him for that, I did compliment the work of one TSA official to minimize privacy consequences of millimeter wave, which does provide a margin of security.

The event was recorded, so we can capture exactly what I said: “Frankly, I think millimeter wave is not a bad technology. Peter Pietra at TSA has done a good job, I think, of getting the agency to design the system well.”

That’s it. I made no reference to a ”long and detailed consultation period,” and I don’t know of any such thing happening. I didn’t compliment Secretary Chertoff, but a deputy who—despite Chertoff, most likely—managed to instill some privacy protections in TSA’s use of whole-body imaging systems. As to my comfort, I’ll take “less uncomfortable than I would have been” over “very, very comfortable,” which is inaccurate.

As I’ve written elsewhere, ”I think [TSA privacy officer Peter Pietra has] done a creditable job of trying to build privacy protections into this system… . But maybe it’s not enough. We’re talking about trying to maintain privacy with a technology that’s fundamentally intrusive.”

Perhaps I’ve taken too subtle a position on millimeter wave: It provides a small margin of security at a high cost to privacy. With that, I’ll let the country make its decision, while I seek to moot this as a public policy issue: Airline security should be provided by airlines and airports, not the government.

I don’t think it’s appropriate to speak of me—by any name—as an endorser of this technology or the process of its adoption. Thanks to sound and video recording technology, the record can be clear.