All Commentary
Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Big Brother Is Watching as He’s Never Watched Before

The TSA's False Dichotomy Is as Absurd as the Agency Itself

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has installed millimeter-wave scanners at checkpoints in about a dozen airports nationwide. It’s threatening to inflict these gizmos on every commercial concourse in the country.

Millimeter waves bombard passengers with beams that penetrate clothing to show the body beneath. Victims don’t undress: the rays do it for them so screeners can find the weapons so many of us tape to our torsos. Never mind that no TSA employee anywhere has discovered a single terrorist, despite wandings, pat-downs, and the agency’s foot fetish. Passengers may now have to perform a virtual strip tease, too.

Currently, the agency subjects only folks “selected” for “secondary screening” to a millimeter-wave scan, and then it offers Leviathan’s version of a choice: They can be groped by a screener in the traditional pat-down or they can pose for pictures that might earn them big bucks from Playboy. The TSA claims that 90 percent of passengers prefer a millimeter-wave scan over a pat-down, but perhaps that’s due to the agency’s bland description: “Millimeter wave detects weapons, explosives and other threat items concealed under layers of clothing without any physical contact. It is a promising alternative to the physical pat-down.” No wonder Peter Bibring of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) says, “I don’t think people are really aware of just how accurate and detailed the images are of their naked body.”

Big Plans

The TSA hopes to eventually scan everyone boarding a plane, not just those unlucky passengers who lose the pat-down lottery. In fact, the agency’s been trying to dose us with millimeter waves and a sister technology, backscatter X-rays, for its entire six years of existence. Public outrage kept it dithering like a dirty old man awaiting the right moment to pounce: the “strikingly graphic images . . . reveal not only our private body parts, but also intimate medical details like colostomy bags,” the ACLU warns. “That degree of examination amounts to a significant assault on the essential dignity of passengers that citizens in a free nation should not have to tolerate.

To lull such prudes, the TSA promises to “remotely locate” the monitors revealing our nakedness so that the screeners leering at them can’t see us in person. They supposedly can’t save the images, either. And the agency claims our faces will be blurred, as if that somehow excuses stripping us of both our clothing and our constitutional freedom.

But TSA might as well stand for “Truth Seldom Appears.” Screeners at checkpoints and monitors can communicate; only TSA honchos pretend they’ll be saying, “No weapons detected on this suspect, Howie,” instead of, “Whoa! What a bod! Get her name off her ticket, will ya?”

Alleging that the machines can’t save images is just as preposterous. Initially the TSA insisted the contraptions “have zero storage capability, so the images cannot be stored, transmitted or printed.” But manufacturers’ websites touted their products’ “storage capability” (though the feature can be disabled). Ergo, TSA chief Kip Hawley now asserts that our naughty pictures “will never be stored, transmitted or printed, and [they] will be deleted immediately once viewed.” But how can he guarantee that screeners won’t figure out how to enable “Save”? Employees could also photograph their monitors unless the TSA searches them for cell phones and cameras. That isn’t very likely: despite the agency’s penchant for searching us, it has refused to so abuse screeners—even when passengers accuse them of stealing jewelry or cash. At Boston Logan one summer day in 2005, John Wright put his $7,000 diamond wedding ring, Rolex watch, and wallet in a plastic bin while he walked through the metal detector; only his Rolex and wallet were still in the bin a few moments later. He figured one of the three screeners manning the checkpoint swiped his ring because no one else other than his wife was around. But authorities declined to search the trio because, says TSA spokeswoman Ann Davis, “employees aren’t searched if there’s insufficient evidence to warrant it.”

Passengers should be that lucky. Meanwhile, how will a bureaucracy that can’t keep screeners from swiping our belongings stop them from exploiting us with this newest toy?

Privacy at Risk

Look for a brisk business in bootlegged pictures of celebrities or folks whose bodies intrigue in some way. Barry Steinhardt of the ACLU believes that “you’re going to start seeing those images all over the Internet. These images are going to have high commercial value.” They may have high vengeance values, too. An angry ex could post his former wife’s image on a webpage, whether he works for the TSA or pays a friend who does to pirate the image.

At present, the agency pledges to choose passengers “randomly” for millimeter-wave scanning. But in 2004, screeners at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., “randomly selected” passengers for pat-downs by kicking the magnetometers when attractive women walked through. They then forced these victims to strip for searches in stairwells. A horrified employee told ABC News, “That really incensed me that someone felt that they could just put on some gloves and they could just violate someone to that degree.”

Tragically, the idea allowing these assaults—that passengers deprived of all weapons, and therefore of all self-defense against terrorists, are safe passengers—is merely an assumption. No research substantiates it. Ditto for checkpoints: three American researchers could find “no comprehensive studies that evaluated the effectiveness of X-ray screening of passengers or hand luggage, screening with metal detectors, or screening to detect explosives.”

There may be less expensive, more efficient ways to secure planes, but no one knows because Congress unilaterally imposed a security system on aviation. The TSA is flying blind. It does what it does because it wants to, not because analysis shows that forcing passengers to pose for virtual nude photographs reduces the incidence of onboard weapons by, say, 58 percent.

The TSA’s false dichotomy—that screeners must either molest us or see us naked—is as absurd as the agency itself. There’s a third choice: abolish the TSA. That would free the airlines to protect their customers effectively—and inoffensively.