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Terrorist Attempt May Strip Fliers of More Privacy

Terrorist Attempt May Strip Fliers of More Privacy

Backscatter advanced imaging units -- machines that basically let TSA screeners see through airline passengers' clothing -- are under new scrutiny following Christmas Day's plane bombing attempt. The machines are in limited use now, but more are on the way. Privacy advocates call them "virtual strip-searches." Will greater use of this technology actually make air travel safer?

By Renay San Miguel
12/29/09 11:52 AM PT

Back in early October -- nearly three months before Umar Abdulmutallab tried to blow up a jetliner bound for Detroit -- the Transportation Security Administration's blog cheerily announced it had received US$355 million of Recovery Act money for "a lot of really nifty improvements to aviation security." [*Correction - Jan. 4, 2010]

backscatter machine
Susan Hallowell holds up a side arm that was detected by the "backscatter" machine at the TSA in Egg Harbor Township, N.J. (AP file photo, June 25, 2003)

Included in that amount: $25 million to pay for 150 backscatter advanced imaging units which allow screeners to detect threats under people's clothes.

"This deployment follows a successful pilot phase, during which 46 imaging technology units were deployed at 23 airports and passengers opted to use imaging technology for primary screening 98 percent of the time," according to the blog post. "It is important to note that this technology is always optional to passengers."

The "optional" aspects of airport security, and just how effective whole-body scanning technologies can be, are back in the headlines this week following President Obama's vow to review airline security procedures in the wake of a failed attempt to blow up a Northwest Airlines jet. Abdulmutallab is accused of trying to use explosives sewn into his underwear.

Whole-body scanning has so far been done away from public security areas at airports, and TSA employees never see a passenger's face during the scan; in most cases, they aren't even in the same room.

Debate about the scannners has come up before in the years after Sept. 11, but their full implementation in airports has been delayed by privacy concerns. Groups like the ACLU call them "virtual strip-searches" and have suggested that the potential for abuse and civil rights violations outweighs any security benefits.

Virtual Strip-Searches Effective?

There's nothing new in this week's reexaminations of the pros and cons of whole-body scanning, despite the Obama administration's promise to take a second look at current security measures, according to Mike German, ACLU privacy counsel.

"What's missing from the debate now is whether [whole-body scanners] are more effective in detecting plastic explosives than any other technology," German told TechNewsWorld. "This seems sort of a knee-jerk reaction. There's no scientific evidence that it's going to be more effective in detecting events like what happened recently" on the Christmas Day attempt. "It's putting into practice a technology that has a huge privacy downside for the vast majority of people going through security."

One week before Abdulmutallab's attempt, another privacy advocacy group, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, sued the Justice Department in an attempt to gain access to images taken by the scanners and how they are used by the TSA. In June, Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz introduced a bill that would ensure that whole-body scanning would only be used if a traditional metal detector raised the need for more screening. That bill is pending Senate action. [*Correction - Dec. 30, 2009]

Nineteen airports currently use the whole-body scanners as secondary screening machines, with only a handful using them as primary sources of threat detection. The TSA's intention to use its Recovery Act money to buy 150 more machines, coupled with the latest incident, raises more concerns with ACLU officials.

"If you are going to do this, do you have to use it on every single traveler?" German asked. "There should be a graduated response based on facts that give rise to reasonable suspicions before invasive techniques are used. And if you are going to use them, there has to be adequate oversight to make sure they're not used in a discriminatory manner, or violative of civil rights and privacy."

Smarter, Not More, Use of Technology

Privacy need not come at the cost of security, nor vice-versa, according to Brad Jansen, an adjunct scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. "If we're smart about it, those two can go hand in hand," Jansen told TechNewsWorld.

Jansen, who is also director of the Center for Financial Privacy and Human Rights, has testified before Congress on security measures taken in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. There are other ways to use the existing methods and technologies to enhance security, he said, such as using passenger profiling based on behavior/individual suspicions and to let the airlines and airports take the lead on security versus governmental agencies.

When it comes to whole-body scanners, "if we're going to use them, use them smarter," Jansen said, "where these machines are used as secondary screening based on behavior profiling for individual suspicions. The policies we've got now -- the longer lines, the gross violations of people's privacy where there are no indications of individual suspicions -- don't make us safer."


*ECT News Network editor's note - Dec. 30, 2009: Our original publication of this article incorrectly identified Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, as a congressman from Colorado.


*ECT News Network editor's note - Jan. 4, 2010: In our original publication of this article, the Transportation Security Administration was incorrectly identified as the Transportation Safety Administration.


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