Getting naked is not something many of us take lightly. Unless you're one of the fine specimens featured on MTV's reality-esque show The Jersey Shore—"juiceheads," I think they're called?—the prospect of having random strangers ogle your uncovered form is just, well, terrifying.
Whether it's sunbathing at the beach or changing in the gym locker room, the absence of full clothing encourages all kinds of body image insecurities to rear their ugly heads. It reminds each of us how much more we have to strive for...more visits to the gym, more repetitions while there; fewer meals out, fewer desserts while there. We humans are perhaps fatally flawed in our assumption that everyone else is primarily interested in judging us as harshly as we judge ourselves. (Newsflash: Do you remember how fat Betty looked in her swimsuit last summer? Neither do I, and neither will anyone else. Except, of course, Betty.)
Embracing your form, whether it errs toward the Rubenesque or not, is something everyone hopes to achieve. From a purely scientific standpoint, we can appreciate the immense power and capacity our bodies give us. They are, after all, incredible machines. Given the right fuel and care, they will last us a lifetime—not many manufacturers can guarantee such performance. From an aesthetic point of view, learning to love every inch takes time.
Until we reach this state of bliss and can frolic merrily in the buff without an ounce of shame or self-consciousness, many of us will spend as much of the year as possible in various states of dress. Unfortunately, however, it has now become a matter of national security that we all defy society's conventional outlook on public nudity (I think an uncle of mine might have gotten arrested once for such folly) and bare ourselves every time we get on an airplane.
In our post-9/11 world, anti-terrorism efforts have taken precedence to many things. Requiring travelers to bare their most intimate selves to Transportation Security Administration (TSA) guards via some of the new full-body scan equipment being used to search for terrorist threats in airports across America would not be the first time such efforts impinged on citizens' privacy. However, the question being asked today is two-fold: a) how much can these digital scans see and is performing a digital strip search taking the privacy violations too far, and b) are these full-body scans even effective in preventing terrorist threats at all?
To begin with, one must ask what, if not your body, is yours and yours alone? What gives your government (or the government of a foreign country, as these machines are increasingly implemented around the world) the right to view your body the same way they might go through the contents of you pocket? Asking someone to show parts of themselves they have likely only shared with those closest to them in the name of protecting national interests requires a complete objectification of the human body: It, like all other human possessions, could be used as a weapon and is therefore subject to search. Submitting to such intrusion requires either a great deal of patriotism or an ignorance of what the machine's eyes can actually see.
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?
What do you think about full-body scans at airports? Leave your comments below.