Tag: strip-search machines

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.

TSA’s Strip/Grope: Unconstitutional?

Writing in the Washington Post, George Washington University law professor Jeffrey Rosen carefully concludes, “there’s a strong argument that the TSA’s measures violate the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures.” The strip/grope policy doesn’t carefully escalate through levels of intrusion the way a better designed program using more privacy protective technology could.

It’s a good constutional technician’s analysis. But Professor Rosen doesn’t broach one of the most important likely determinants of Fourth Amendment reasonableness: the risk to air travel these searches are meant to reduce.

Writing in Politico last week, I pointed out that there have been 99 million domestic flights in the last decade, transporting seven billion passengers. Not one of these passengers snuck a bomb onto a plane and detonated it. Given that this period coincides with the zenith of Al Qaeda terrorism, this suggests a very low risk.

Proponents of the TSA’s regime point out that threats are very high, according to information they have. But that trump card—secret threat information—is beginning to fail with the public. It would take longer, but would eventually fail with courts, too.

But rather than relying on courts to untie these knots, Congress should subject TSA and the Department of Homeland Security to measures that will ultimately answer the open risk questions: Require any lasting security measures to be justified on the public record with documented risk management and cost-benefit analysis. Subject such analyses to a standard of review such as the Adminstrative Procedure Act’s “arbitrary and capricious” standard. Indeed, Congress might make TSA security measures APA notice-and-comment rules, with appropriate accomodation for (truly) temporary measures required by security exigency.

Claims to secrecy are claims to power. Congress should withdraw the power of secrecy from the TSA and DHS, subjecting these agencies to the rule of law.

Washington Post-ABC News Push-Poll on Strip-Search Machines

In public opinion research, “salience” is the word often used to describe what is at the forefront of people’s minds. Salience influences people’s responses to polls: If they’ve just thought about something, their responses will reflect what they’ve just thought about.

It makes sense, and it’s one of the theses of Jonathan Zaller’s public opinion reference book The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion. Most people don’t hold fixed views on most matters of public debate. They merely improvise, when asked, based in part on what issues are salient for them.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll out today finds that most people support the body scanning machines the Transportation Security Administration is installing in airports. The new “enhanced” pat-downs don’t fare so well.

How do strip-search machines get the level of approval they do? The poll itself pushes terrorism to the forefront before inquiring about TSA security measures. The first question goes to frequency of travel. The second two are:

2. Are you personally worried about traveling by commercial airplane because of the risk of terrorism, or do you think the risk is not that great? (IF WORRIED) Would you say you are very worried or only somewhat?

3. What do you think is more important right now - (for the federal government to investigate possible terrorist threats, even if that intrudes on personal privacy); or (for the federal government not to intrude on personal privacy, even if that limits its ability to investigate possible terrorist threats)?

Before being asked about strip-search machines, poll-takers hear cognates of “terror” three times, “privacy” once.

Thinking about the taste of a dirty worm squishing around in your mouth when you bite into an apple, do you think pesticide use should be increased or decreased?

Radley Balko’s thesis that the media are more statist than liberal finds validation in a sampling of opinion pages, finds Matt Welch. You just might find it by sampling poll designs as well.

Strip-Search Machines as the Downfall of the ‘War on Terror’

Here’s Wall Street Journal editorial page editor Paul Gigot on NBC’s Meet the Press:

I think the danger here is that the public begins to revolt against these kinds of security procedures. And then you risk losing public support, not just for airport screenings, but for the whole war on terror and the whole national security regime post-9/11.


The “danger” Gigot is talking about is that the government might lose control of counterterrorism policy, ceding that control back to a frustrated and increasingly restless American populace. The “War on Terror” theme supports a host of policies—most acutely, these airport searches—that are at best unexplained by the goverrnment and likely not merited by actual security conditions. As I noted in an earlier post, in seven billion domestic passenger trips over the last decade, there have been zero bombings. Yet we are to be searched like prison inmates at the whim of the TSA. That simply doesn’t comport with common sense.

(Top government officials and people I know and respect sometimes say things like, “If you knew what I’d learned in secret briefings … .” I don’t accept these assertions. Just like in a courtroom, facts not put into evidence are not facts in the public debate either. “War on Terror” secrecy policies are a failing pillar of post-9/11 security policy.)

There is not real danger in shifting from today’s overreactive, fear-based security regime to one that exploits terrorism’s many weaknesses to secure the country cost-effectively, confidently, and consistently with Americans’ liberty and prosperity. The Cato book, Terrorizing Ourselves: Why U.S. Counterterrorism Policy is Failing and How to Fix It, contains the thinking that undergirds a new, better approach.

Where to Report and Discuss TSA Abuses

With the TSA sticking by its policy of requiring select air travelers to submit to visual observation or physical touching of their private areas before they can fly, a number of groups are collecting reports and facilitating public discussion.

The American Civil Liberties Union has put up a page on which to report TSA screening abuses.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center has a “Body Scanner Incident Report” page.

And the U.S. Travel Association has a site called “Your Travel Voice,” and a related Facebook page where people can share their stories and air their views.

The activism site StopDigitalStripSearches.org also has a Facebook page.

The TSA has a complaint form you can fill out, of course.

When you post to a Facebook page, obviously you’ll be sharing your story publicly. If you communicate with any of the organizations, you might specify whether you consent to sharing your name and your story with the media. Doing so can facilitate getting more stories and more public discussion of the government’s policies.

A “National Opt-Out Day” has been called for November 24th.

I’ve written about the strip/grope policy in terms of risk management, and suggested that acceptance of some small risk is probably superior to strip/grope or a budding national ID system. In his post ”Body Scanner Blues,” David Rittgers recaps and expands on his New York Post editorial.


The Security Logic Clarifies the Question

A new post on the TSA blog gets the logic behind the strip/grope combination correct.

[I]f you’re selected for AIT and choose to opt-out, we still need to check you for non-metallic threats. That’s why a pat-down is required. If you refuse both, you can’t fly.

Any alternative allows someone concealing something to decline the strip-search machine, decline the intimate pat-down, and leave the airport, returning another day in hopes of not being selected for the strip-search machine. The TSA reserves the right to fine you $11,000 for declining these searches.

So the question is joined: Should the TSA be able to condition air travel on you permitting someone to look at or touch your genitals?

I’ve argued that the strip/grope is security excess not validated by risk management. It’s akin to a regulation that fails the “arbitrary and capricious” standard in adminstrative law. But the TSA is not so constrained.