Don’t Forget To Check Your Liberties Along With Your Luggage

Don’t Forget To Check Your Liberties Along With Your Luggage

When will it end?  The Transportation Security Administration, the organization that mans the airport security checkpoints, appears to be just throwing new regulations and procedures at us, the American public, with the usual national security excuse.  Seriously, the conduct that the TSA now considers Standard Operating Procedure is so offensive, it was difficult to think of a title for this post that wasn’t equally outrageous.  Remember those new enhanced scanners that I wrote about several months ago?  They’re rolling out nationwide, and contrary to what I thought would happen back in January, the controversy just seems to be spreading.

In fact, I think we’re at the point where the snowball effect is starting to kick in; when I was originally trying to write this earlier this week, the outcry was largely limited to the blogosphere and other internet communities.  Now, however, it’s hit the mainstream media, and it doesn’t show any sign of slowing down any time soon.  Given that they are subjected to the scanners much more frequently than you or I, the airline pilots have a slightly different, and perhaps slightly stronger, argument than the general public.  However, the peoples’ argument is just as strong, and just as insidious.  Just how big?  Read on, my friend, read on…

“Invasive and Humiliating”

That is the reaction of the Council on American-Islamic Relations to the new procedures, according to CNN.  And it is among the most mild responses, from the survey of writings on this subject I have done over the past few days.  Above is a picture of what the person watching the scanner allegedly sees using one of those backscatter machines.  Creepy, huh?  The picture is of the head of the TSA’s research lab, Susan Hallowell, and while the description on Wikipedia says there’s a privacy algorithm in place now, we can’t be quite sure how much is actually concealed now, can we?

However, there is an alternative to what has been affectionately called the “porno-scanner” by the activists behind the backlash at We Won’t Fly.  Well, alternative isn’t quite the word I’d use; it’s more of a choice between the lesser of two evils.  See, you’re allowed to say “I opt out” of the scanner, but you will be subjected to what is called an “enhanced” pat-down.  These pat-downs are nothing like the ones you used to get randomly pulled aside for; now the TSA officer is supposed move up your body until he/she “meets resistance”.  Yes, that includes your private parts, folks.  I can see the need for airport security, but this choice between alternatives that both violate your right to privacy crosses the line.

This is especially true since, well, apparently the machines can actually save your naked photos for posterity.  That’s not what we were told back when the TSA tried to sell us on the concept at the beginning of this year.  The setting that allows the machine to do this is supposed to be disabled, but machines can malfunction, humans make mistakes, and there are some unscrupulous people out there who would want to have fun with a gravely serious matter.  Nevertheless, the ability to not only store those images, but also to transfer them over the Internet has been written into the official TSA procurement requirements, according to CBS.

But do they make us any safer, or is it just security theater?

That is, of course, the $76 million question.  The answer, sadly, is perhaps not.  The jury’s still out on the scanners’ effectiveness, but effective or not the privacy implications of it are a little too high.  The pat-downs are much worse; there have been stories including a rape victim who was subjected to the pat down, bringing back painful memories, pilots speaking out about the policies who are concerned how it will affect their physical and financial health, and even a former TSA officer saying it is all a sham:

“Ok that one is bullshit.  It is a terror tactic by TSA to get you to walk through the more thorough body scanner.  I can’t defend TSA on this one.  I have talked to the TSA officers and it is no more effective than the old pat down procedure.  They tested it out with trainers and each other.  It is purely a terror tactic by TSA.  Shame on TSA and anyone who has to get one should write a complaint in afterward.”

This sickens me.  We’re spending our hard-earned tax dollars on something that’s nothing but theater, and the front-line officers know it.  The sheer amount of waste across the government is jaw-dropping; if we could somehow magically get rid of all the waste and inefficiency in every government program, I doubt we’d even have a national deficit to worry about.  But that’s a post for another day.

The other main concern with the scanners is the fact that you’re getting hit with radiation, albeit a very small dose.  The jury is still out on whether the dose is strong enough to be harmful for the average traveler, but the pilots and flight attendants have a very valid point.  The nature of any radiation is that it doesn’t just go away; each successive dose over a certain period of time builds on the previous one.  Given how many times an average flight crew has to go to work during a given week, that’s a lot of radiation over a very short amount of time.  I can see why their unions want them to be exempt; it’s a very powerful argument that should happen.

In addition to the previously stated concerns about privacy and health risks, there’s a good argument to be made that these new security techniques go against the Constitution.  While yes, there is no explicit guarantee of a “right to privacy” in the Constitution, I believe that these scanners, and especially the enhanced pat-downs, violate the spirit of the Fourth Amendment, which says (emphasis mine):

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

The scanners are effectively similar to being strip-searched; I know about the close call last Christmas and the various other unsuccessful attempts over the years, but seriously, we do not have to sacrifice our civil liberties in the name of security that just reacts to yesterday’s threat instead of being proactive in searching for and stopping tomorrow’s.  If that bit about the scanners isn’t enough for you, consider this: the pat-downs now are exactly the same as what the police use on someone that they have probable cause to arrest.  Folks, after nine years of silly regulations that I don’t believe particularly enhance our security (liquid rule, anyone?) to justify the trampling of our rights as Americans.

It’s Time to Make a Stand

Fortunately, we’re at an opportune moment to draw a line in the sand and let the government know that we will not just imply roll over and accept a generic “in the name of national security” argument.  Ben Franklin must be rolling over in his grave at the willingness of our society to ignore his famous quote, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

We do not have to do this; we can instead get our voices heard and try to change these policies.   While the obvious solution is to not fly for Thanksgiving, for many of us that is simply not an option, including myself.  However, there is a national opt-out day scheduled for November 24th – the single busiest travel day of the entire year – where anyone flying on that day from one of the 65 or so airports that have the scanners chooses to opt-out of the scan and go for the pat-down.

Yes, I do believe the pat-down is worse than the scanners, though the point of it isn’t the scanner.  The point of opt-out day is to expose the pat-down for what it really is: a scare tactic by the TSA to get you to go through their scanners.  To do this, do not have your pat down done in private.  It may seem crazy, but if enough people see just what their options are, they might be convinced to proceed to phase II of the popular resistance to these enhanced techniques.

Phase II, of course, is the usual grassroots pressure on the government to do something.  The Electronic Privacy Information Center has already filed a lawsuit against the TSA to stop the installation of the scanners, and the ACLU is considering their own, but those two suits alone are not enough.  The Obama Administration, and especially the incoming Congress, need to know just where we stand on this issue.