To scan or not to scan? That is the question. On March 10, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) presented oral arguments before the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington D.C., telling the three-judge panel that full-body scanners used by airport security violate the civil rights of passengers in what amounts to an “unreasonable search.”
EPIC’s intent is no less than transforming the utilization of full-body scanning by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) because it infringes upon both the rights granted by the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and other laws protecting privacy and religious freedom. EPIC is asking the appellate court to require the TSA to create a new security policy that incorporates public input prior to implementation.
The Feds counter that they have established the proper “privacy safeguards,” which they define as protecting the travelers’ personal identity from TSA agents monitoring the scanned image. The government also argues that any passenger “randomly chosen” to be scanned has the option of receiving a physical pat down from a TSA agent. It should be noted that such “pat-downs” have been the subject of much controversy and ridicule – is there a TV comedy show or commercial that hasn’t parodied the groping and grabbing of passengers’ intimate areas by overzealous TSA agents? Not to mention that some passengers claim to have been forced into scanning, with no pat down option presented to them.
In court, the appellate judges speculated on the potential abuses of TSA policies; for example, would they eventually require passengers to be stripped-searched? Since there was no public input on the scanner issue, theoretically, the TSA could initiate passenger strip-searches in similar fashion, though the judges implied strip-searching would not likely survive a Fourth Amendment challenge.
EPIC has based their case on Freedom of Information documents detailing the technology of the scanners as well as hundreds of passenger grievances, though they do support the use of scanners as a secondary screening measure when there is just cause to further examine a given passenger.
The government also promised that new scanning software to be administered would only reveal a “generic outline” of a human body that will highlight a body area where a suspicious object is detected, as opposed to the naked imagery airport scanners presently display. EPIC retorted that even these updated scanners would still be able to record and archive naked images of passengers.
There are varying types of full-body scanners in use; some alleged to be more dangerous than others, which is another controversy; though the TSA announced on March 11 they would be retesting the 247 x-ray scanners that emit ionizing radiation after maintenance reports revealed some devices were emitting radiation at ten times the expected levels. However, the TSA are claiming those figures are “math mistakes” and that a person actually absorbs more “background radiation” in an average day than they do walking through a full-body scanner.
Beyond the civil rights and privacy issues as well as the health concerns, there is also the possibility that the full-body scanners are part of an overall crackdown on drugs, camouflaged as the war on terrorism. In fact, it could be argued that the scanners were manufactured to detect drugs more capably than weapons of mass destruction.
The Phoenix New Times reported in September 2010 that body scanners have benefited local law enforcement cracking down on drugs as opposed to stopping international terrorists (whenever drugs are found on a passenger that’s been screened, local police are called in to arrest the passenger). Instead of finding “dirty bombs,” the scanners are revealing hidden drugs in pockets or even on a passenger’s physical person. In the span of a few months in 2010, over 80 passengers were busted via scanning trying to smuggle drugs – or sometimes weapons.
The ironic – and dangerous – twist to this story, unbelievable as it may seem, is that the scanners cannot detect certain types of explosives or even items hidden in body cavities, as reported by BBC News. For example, it’s extremely difficult for some scanners to detect liquids at all as well as plastics, unless the plastics were very “solid.” Both liquids and plastics have the potential to be used as explosives. So, while bomb-making material might get through airport security checkpoints at any time, fortunately that bag of weed will be detected and detained by the ever-vigilant TSA.