Privacy advocates are up in arms over the apparently blasé attitude with which TSA officials and the U.S. government have introduced 40 full-body scanning machines in 19 airports across the United States, with 150 more advanced imaging machines on the way in the coming year (and plans to purchase 300 more in 2010). According to reports by CNN, the technology in place today uses millimeter wave technology to create a digital image of a traveler that allows potential threats hidden under clothing (and potentially a bit more) to stand out on the screen. The individual's face is blurred, and the robotic image produced is grainy and programmed to be as imprecise as possible without sacrificing vital information. Additionally, the guard performing the scan never sees the image produced, and the guard viewing the image sits in a remote location and never sees the passenger in question.
The TSA hopes that such precautions will assuage any fears over public nudity or invasion of privacy. But the fact remains that many people are unaware of just how much of themselves is being revealed when they step into the body scanner. Even more worrisome is that, as this technology is revolutionary in the way it allows security threats to be detected, the TSA has essentially been allowed to write its own rulebook as it introduces these measures. Privacy advocates say that without further oversight of the TSA, including full disclosure for air travelers and laws in place to protect the existing rights of passengers, there is no telling how the TSA might up the ante in the years to come.
Meanwhile, TSA representatives have repeatedly said that their goal is not to see more of the people they scan, but to advance their technology to the point that any potential threats can be auto-detected without having to see much of the body at all. Additionally, full-body scans are currently a secondary scanning procedure, used for people who opt out of the fairly more invasive pat-down search after setting off security alarms in the general screening process. When confronted with the option of being groped by a stranger—possibly one without the proper training to deal with sensitive issues such as colostomy bags, adult diapers, piercings, etc.—the idea of being visually scanned by robotic eyes seems like the obvious choice. But are these really our only options?
The question becomes this: How effective is this technology at actually preventing real terrorist threats? It has proven highly effective at humiliating some travelers and creating long security lines and missed flights for others, but is it keeping the bad guys at bay? Bruce Schneier, a security technologist who wrote the book Beyond Fear, illuminates that any technology whose function can be known ahead of time can be made obsolete. While full-body scans are effective at keeping one-man, low-scale operations to a minimum, organized terrorists will simply find ways to work around machinery whose operations are known. In Schneier's view, money would be better spent gathering usable intelligence than on imposing irritating, invasive and potentially ineffective security measures on the country's populace.
"Stop trying to guess. You take away guns and bombs, the terrorists use box cutters. You take away box cutters, they put explosives in their shoes. You screen shoes, they use liquids. You take away liquids, they strap explosives to their body. You use full-body scanners, they're going to do something else," Schneier says. While including full-body scans or perfunctory pat-down searches might make some feel safer, the experts seem to feel otherwise. And this gives us all call to question: At what point do we say "enough is enough" to the increasingly lackadaisical approach our government has taken toward protecting Americans' rights to privacy in the interest of creating security protocols that seem to comprise more smoke and mirrors (and progressing nudity) than anything else?
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