Tag: whole-body imaging

Body Scanner Blues

I’ve got a piece in today’s New York Post that points out some inconvenient truths about the body scanners now installed at airports across the country. Building on Jim Harper’s excellent post, body scanners are not being installed because of a well-reasoned risk analysis.

As Timothy Carney pointed out in the Washington Examiner, this is a sop to the companies that make the body scanners. The machines don’t work as well as advertised – a March GAO Report determined that it is not certain the technology would have found Farouk Abdulmutallab’s suspicious package, and that a cost-benefit analysis needed to be conducted before spending $340 million each year to run the labor-intensive equipment.

The same report found that cargo screening was a weak spot that ought to be addressed, but it took terrorist cargo bomb plots to get the TSA to momentarily escape the clutches of regulatory capture and tend to this threat. The British have been much more candid about the limitations of this technology as applied to low-density explosives, noting that the scanners probably wouldn’t have stopped the 2006 liquid bomb plot at Heathrow.

Of course, you can always opt out of the body scanners in favor of a groping on par with the one that motivated my colleague Penn Jillette to report his sexual assault to the police.

You could opt out entirely. TSA Director John Pistole says you won’t fly, but if you publicize your objections, the TSA may try to fine you $11,000.

Keep a stiff upper lip. I’m sure that this will all be much smoother and less invasive when TSA screeners unionize.

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.

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.

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.