The TSA Strip-Search Machines

USA Today reports that the Transportation Security Agency is replacing metal detectors in some airports with body scanners (sometimes known as “strip-search machines”).

This doesn’t sit right with many people.

The TSA has done a questionable job so far of informing the public about what the machines do and - most importantly - of the fact that they’re optional.

Back in October, St. Petersburg Times columnist Robyn Blumner wrote about her experience.

As I stepped out of the virtual strip-search machine I immediately felt a shock wave of humiliation and intrusion, particularly as I looked around the security area and realized I was the only female traveler around and the only person “randomly” selected. The TSA agent hadn’t bothered to explain that I had the right to decline and submit to a pat-down by a female agent instead — a choice I would have taken.

A friend wrote me the other day to tell of her recent experience:

For the past year I’ve been reading stories about new machines being tested by TSA at airports which x-ray or wave scan passengers in order to detect explosives or other items hidden under one’s clothing. I’ve been horrified by these stories and the accompanying sample pictures which show a pretty detailed picture of the person’s body parts. I think the use of this technology is a gross violation of the right to privacy, particularly when used randomly on passengers for no probable cause or even reasonable suspicion of any wrong doing.
… .

This past Sunday in Miami, … after going through the normal metal detector, a TSA agent had me enter a machine which looked similar to the puffer machines (explosive trace portals) from the outside. He told me to put my feet on two premarked spots. The door closed, and an internal panel of the machine rotated part of the way around my body. Then the machine opened, and he had me turn, put my feet on different preprinted places, the door then shut, and the panel rotated around my body again. All the while I had to keep my arms raised.

My hunch and a subsequent internet search confirmed that TSA is using millimeter wave body-imaging technology at the Miami International Airport. I saw a picture of the machine I was lead through. However I also read on the TSA website that use of this technology is supposed to be VOLUNTARY. Several places on the TSA website describe it as an alternative OPTION available for passengers.

… .

At no point did the TSA agent tell me what the machine was doing. I was not told of any other options available to me such as a pat down or wand. There were no signs informing passengers that they were being x-rayed/wave scanned for viewing of them naked at a remote location.

I never would have willingly entered that machine had I known in advance what it was. In my opinion, this technology should not be used at all, but if it is, TSA needs to do a better job on site of disclosing its actions and the capabilities of its equipment. TSA also should make advising passengers of their rights a high priority.

I’ve corresponded with Peter Pietra, the TSA’s Privacy Officer, and he disputes the absence of signs at the Miami airport. I think he’s done a creditable job of trying to build privacy protections into this system. You can find information on the millimeter wave strip-search technology here and here.

But maybe it’s not enough. We’re talking about trying to maintain privacy with a technology that’s fundamentally intrusive.

Back to Robyn Blumner:

Here is the inevitable: You give people with routine jobs the ability to rummage around in other people’s intimate lives — innocent people who are not suspected of anything — and bad stuff happens. Privacy goes out the window, boys will be boys, the rules, law and even the Constitution don’t stand a chance. Titillation trumps training, at least for some.

Why must we fight about this? Because we transferred so much more responsibility for airline security to the government in a knee-jerk reaction to the 9/11 attacks. This was a bad idea, for reasons I discussed at length in a March 2005 debate about airline security with Reason’s Bob Poole.

Instead of this lumpy, government-provided airline security, I said, “Airlines should be given clear responsibility for their own security and clear liability should they fail. Under these conditions, airlines would provide security, along with the best mix of privacy, savings, and convenience, in the best possible way.”

TSA is not balancing all these interests well. Government agencies are terrible at responding to consumers compared to businesses, whose bottom lines rely on it. As I said in the Reason piece, the fix to this problem is to rethink aviation security from the ground up. The TSA should be eliminated.