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TSA and the "audacity of grope"

Posted by Carol Rose, On Liberty  September 15, 2010 03:56 PM

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Carol Rose is away; the following was written by ACLU of Massachusetts researcher Kade Crockford.

By now you've probably read all about the TSA's new screening procedures, which amount to "let us see you naked, or we'll feel you up." If you have traveled through Logan airport recently, you've probably encountered them live and in person. Even worse, the Department of Homeland Security agency responsible for keeping us safe in the friendly skies has plans to cement the "porno or pat-down" policy and extend it to all U.S. airports.

Travelers are not happy. And security experts aren't, either.

What is the new policy, exactly? It hinges on a bad choice between two privacy-invasive options.

The first is the method TSA pushes on travelers (sometimes without making clear that there is another option): the "naked scanner" machines. There are two different kinds of scanners being installed and operated in airports throughout the country, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars to taxpayers.

The "backscatter" machine works like an X-ray, producing an alarmingly accurate picture of the naked body, and comes with attendant worries about health risks. The New York Times quotes John Sedat, a biochemistry professor at the University of California, San Francisco, explaining why he wrote a letter to the Obama administration calling for an independent investigation into the machines: "It's premature to put a whole population through this thing, not without much more due diligence and much more independent testing."

The other machine uses "millimeter wave" technology to bounce electromagnetic waves off of the body, producing an image similar to that made by the backscatter.

Neither machine can see through human flesh, which means they can't detect explosives concealed internally. Instead, they produce a black and white image of a naked person, visible to a TSA employee in another room, and may also see plastics and other non-metal substances concealed on the surface of someone's body. But earlier this year, a Government Accountability Office report found that the machines might not have even stopped last year's "underwear bomber."

The machines are also expensive, about $170,000 apiece--a cost many security experts say isn't worth it. As Bruce Schneier, a widely recognized security expert, put it, "Full-body scanners: they're not just a dumb idea, they don't actually work."

The TSA has mounted an aggressive public relations campaign to try convincing us that the naked scanners aren't invading our privacy. First they said that the machines were incapable of storing images. Then we found out that TSA stretched the truth when it made that statement; in fact, "the TSA... requires all airport body scanners it purchases to be able to store and transmit images for 'testing, training, and evaluation purposes.'" TSA's blog responded to this charge, simply repeating that the machines are incapable of storing images, writing that "the machines cannot store images of passengers at airports."

Additionally, earlier this year, U.S. Marshalls were caught storing thousands of travelers' images (you know: from those machines that can't store images). How long will it be before images of travelers--including children--end up on the Internet, as the butt of jokes, or as raw material for sexual harassment?

Some of this is already happening. Florida TSA agents mocked a coworker for having a small penis after he walked through the scanner when his colleagues could see his naked image. A woman working for airport security in Britain filed a sexual harassment claim after one of her coworkers made a lewd remark regarding the size of her breasts. She, too, had gone through the naked scanner in front of the wrong person.

OK, then: you don't want TSA employees to see you naked, or you are worried about the health effects. So what's the other screening option? The other method is what the TSA is calling an "enhanced pat-down." But while TSA has said in public statements that this option is available, it doesn't seem to be advertising the alternative procedure. Of the five or so people here in the ACLU office who have traveled through Logan recently, not one person reports being told or made aware of the existence of an alternative.

So now that you know you can opt-out, it'll be simple, right? Not so fast.

The NYT quotes Drew Hjelm, an Army veteran who tried to opt out of the scanner screening: "[The scanner] definitely didn't feel optional at all... The officer said, either you go through the body scanner or you leave the airport or we're going to call the police and they're going to come and arrest you." Mr. Hjelm went through the scanner, and then TSA officers patted him down anyway. There are many more stories like Mr. Hjelm's, including the case of a pregnant woman who says she was forced to go through the machine even though she repeatedly asked to be "patted-down" instead.

If security officials aren't respecting the wishes of their coworkers, army veterans, or women who are pregnant, what guarantee is there that they're going to respect anyone?

Those travelers who know that they can opt-out and are fortunate enough to encounter a TSA official who knows and obeys the rules are moved out of line to receive their special screening. When they do, this is what they get:

"If anybody ever groped me like that in real life, I would have punched them in their nose," a 50-year-old traveler said. "It was extremely invasive. This was a very probing-type touching--not just patting over all your areas, but actually probing and pushing and seeing if I was concealing something in my genital area."

Many similar reports have led analysts to question whether or not the TSA is punishing travelers for refusing the agency's chosen method, the naked scanners. According to one consumer advocacy website, the TSA unofficially admitted to "two standards of pat-downs. One for the normal situation where passengers are going through metal detectors and a different pat-down for those who refuse to go through the whole-body scanners."

Let's recap: the TSA is implementing a policy that attempts to force people to go through a potentially hazardous machine, and the effectiveness of said screening is contested, to put it generously. Travelers are being inconvenienced, even harassed, and it is costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

It's time for Americans to reassert our fundamental right to privacy. We must ask tough questions of Congress, which has thus far allowed the TSA to implement a policy that violates our privacy without even proving that it keeps us safe.

You can tell the TSA what you think about their new screening policies by calling (866) 289-9673 or e-mailing

And if you're interested in finding out more, the Boston Film Festival will be screening "Please Remove Your Shoes," a documentary that takes on the effectiveness of airport security, on September 20th.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Carol Rose is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. A lawyer and journalist, Carol has spent her career working for and writing about human rights and civil liberties, both in the United States and abroad. More »

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