The Traveler Has No Clothes

Part One of a Two-Part Series

From the dawn of civilization, societies have operated under the assumption that clothing is suitable protection against nudity. Thanks to the Transportation Security Administration, this is no longer true, at least not in our nation’s airports.

With the release of new clothing-penetrating scanners, the TSA has finally succeeded in going where no peeping Tom has gone before: the visual strip search.

TSA has, of course, been climbing that particular drain pipe for years. First, there were the groping body searches, followed by a ban on jackets and cardigans, and finally, no shoes.

But now it’s all coming off – virtually. In terminals across the country, the TSA has undertaken a novel program to install 450 Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) machines, revealing you in all your bath-time glory (rubber duckies over 3.5 oz will be confiscated).

Infrequent flyers are likely thinking hopeful thoughts right now – “they’ll take special precautions, I’ll bet.” Frequent flyers know that not even hope and fairy dust can keep that illusion aloft; you’re already reaching for the barf bag. But lest you regular strippers be tempted to put your best instincts aside, there exists incontrovertible proof of the TSA’s incompetence, courtesy of, naturally, the TSA.

Employees of the TSA have courageously demonstrated the stupidity and rampant violations of privacy inherit with the use of these machines. In fact, security officers, not passengers, registered some of the first cases of abuse and sexual harassment from AIT scans.

In Miami, a TSA employee assaulted a coworker when, following a test scan, he was mercilessly harassed by colleagues about his anatomy. In London, a female security employee was scanned by a male coworker, who then graphically described how much he’d enjoyed seeing her nude. If security employees are so disrespectful toward people they know, imagine how they’ll value the privacy of people they don’t.

Yet, the TSA claims that these were haphazard moments of boorishness. And they claim that their machines have proper safeguards against operator-error, announcing security precautions that included obscuring “sensitive areas” on the scans, an inability to print images or transmit them outside of the security system, and the immediate deletion of scans after review.

Troublingly, none of these guarantees have turned out to be true.

Claiming to obscure “sensitive areas” in the scans was one of the first promises the TSA made to reassure the public, and also one of the most specious. Of what use would a scanning device be that ignored key areas of concealment? And since the TSA had publicly acknowledged they would be overlooking these areas, they all but guaranteed that terrorists would utilize them. The TSA has since recanted this assurance, based on the obvious: sensitive spaces are prime areas to hide things, as any successful drug lord will tell you. The AIT scanners will now record full-frontal nudity.

In another departure from accuracy, the TSA website asserts that “the machines have zero storage capability.” While the absence of image storage would guarantee some level of privacy for passengers, from a security perspective, it makes little sense. Without the ability to retrieve images in the event of a security breach, officials could only guess if the fault lay in the scanner itself, human error, or other causes. Without review ability, the system is effectively blind when it comes to self-correction.

Again, the TSA seems to comprehend the scope of this problem, but they publically maintain the fallacy of privacy. In a document by the TSA dated September 23, 2008, the agency specified that the machines while in test mode allow the “exporting of image data in real-time,” provide “a secure means of high-speed transfer of image data,” and permit “exporting of image data (raw and reconstructed).”

As the Electronic Privacy Information Center reports, the TSA acknowledged during congressional testimony that images could and would be stored for “testing, training, and evaluation purposes.” The TSA also admitted that the machines were (contrary to their previous statements) capable of storing images in airport situations, but asserted that this would not happen.

The TSA’s attempts to calm the frightened public are as transparent as garments in an AIT scanner. But, as serious as these concerns are, privacy issues are perhaps a red-herring for the real question: Are the scanners performing a service that current security checks do not provide?

Numerous organizations, including other offices within the federal government, have raised concerns about the ability of the scanners to detect threats not already discernable through traditional methods. According to the Government Accountability Office, it is “unclear” whether the AIT scanners could have detected the notorious “Underpants Bomber,” the very sort of situation AIT scanners were designed to avert. Nor are the machines likely to have prevented the “Shoe Bomber;” TSA is currently working on the development of another device exclusively to scan shoes.

Throughout the development, deployment, and administration of AIT scanners, the Transportation Security Administration has proven itself woefully inadequate to the challenges these machines create and demonstrated that it is fundamentally un-secure. The egregious violations of its own security policies have been documented not only by privacy advocates, the media, and the testimony of passengers, but by the admission of the TSA itself.

As for the element of human error, it is unlikely that the laxity surrounding the use of images will encourage any improvement in personnel, either. Any organization that creates work attractive to pedophiles and porn addicts should inquire of itself: “if this really a good idea?”

(Next week: A moral paradox, harassed passengers speak out, and the TSA’s new plan for scans.)