If you have taken a commercial flight lately, you’ve probably noticed security has been tightened yet again. The latest instrument to be installed in the security checkpoint dungeons is the full body scanner, which Fox News says was funded by $73 million in stimulus money. (More jobs saved or created!) These devices are similar to the X-ray wall that Arnold Schwarzenegger walked behind in Total Recall, but much less awesome. Unfortunately, they also bathe travelers in low doses of radiation, and make their naked bodies visible to Transportation Security Administration employees who are not always paragons of virtue.
A private advocacy group called EPIC (Electronic Privacy Information Center) filed a lawsuit back in July, seeking to block the rollout of full body scanners. A judge allowed the suit to proceed, but would not order an emergency suspension of the program. A bill forbidding use of the technology as the “sole or primary technology of screening a passenger” passed the House last year, but stalled in the Senate.
EPIC says the body scanners are “unlawful, invasive, and intrusive.” Their lawsuit calls the scanners a violation of the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures. They maintain the technology would not have caught the Underpants Bomber last Christmas, even though he is commonly cited by the TSA as one of the reasons for deploying this new technology.
The scans are equivalent to a virtual strip search, and have already provoked some unprofessional responses from security workers. The most famous incident occurred at Heathrow with a British security technician, who found the full-body scan extremely flattering to a female co-worker. It’s hard to imagine what kind of screening the TSA could give its employees that would make passengers fully comfortable with having their clothes rendered electronically transparent. There are groups in the United Kingdom that say putting children in a full body scanner violates British child-pornography laws.
As for the health risks, Reuters talked to some experts back in June, and they said the exposure to radiation is minimal. In fact, only the backscatter type of scanner delivers radiation of the same type as medical X-ray machines, and they use one-tenth of one percent as much energy as a chest X-ray. Experts at Columbia University want to conduct more tests, but describe the danger to passengers as “very low.” The American College of Radiology says passengers are “exposed to more radiation from the flight than from screening by one of these devices.” Of course, when millions of people are subjected to a procedure that is 99.9999% safe, the odds of someone having a problem grow larger.
Millimeter wave scanners, by contrast, use high-frequency radio waves instead of radiation, and produce fewer emissions than a cell phone. In the interests of completeness, it should be noted that very high levels of radio energy generate heat in living tissue. The first horror movie in which a malfunctioning wave scanner turns into a microwave oven is doubtless already in production, but the idea of this actually happening is just plain silly. The machines at the airport concession stand are more likely to malfunction and bury a hot pretzel in your throat. Nevertheless, unions for pilots and flight attendants are urging members to avoid full body scanners due to health concerns. People are uncomfortable around radiation, and frequent flyers will spend a lot more time in body scanners than hospital X-ray machines.
The alternative to a full body scan is an intimate encounter with a TSA employee. Pilots and passengers don’t like these aggressive pat-downs either. An ExpressJet pilot might lose his job because he refused to be “harassed or molested without cause” by such a search. Passengers have complained of being manhandled during pat-downs, and compared them to sexual molestation, since they involve touching in private areas. A TSA screener told Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic the new pat-down procedures are meant to be so unpleasant that people are herded into the body scanners. Radio host Meg McLain claims she was handled roughly by “an army” of TSA officers and police after refusing a full body scan, although authorities dispute some details of her complaint.
Of course, the TSA dismisses these concerns about health, privacy, and professionalism. They have a cheerful blogger named “Bob” who posts on their official website, blog.tsa.gov. (If you drop by, be sure to check out the amusing “Aviation News Of The Weird” section.) Bob cites surveys that say 79 percent of travelers are “comfortable with U.S. airports using body scanners that can see through clothes,” and points out that “passengers have the right to request private screening at any point during the screening process.”
It’s worth noting that Israel provides phenomenal security at Ben Gurion Airport without using body scanners or intrusive pat-downs. In an April 2010 interview with David Parker Brown of Airline Reporter, global security consultant Rafi Sela said, “It is mindboggling for us Israelis to look at what happens in North America, because we went through this 50 years ago… When the security agency in Israel started to tighten security, and we had to wait in line – not for hours – but 30 or 40 minutes, all hell broke loose here. We said, ‘We’re not going to do this. You’re going to find a way that will take care of security without touching the efficiency of the airport.”
Israel relies on a multi-layered system of human intelligence and careful, but polite and efficient, screening. In contrast, the American TSA is still relying on a relatively small “no fly” list, when a much larger terrorist watch list is available from the U.S. government. There are still bureaucratic walls, and politically correct considerations, that prevent efficient scrutiny of the most suspicious passengers… so millions are spent on machines and procedures which inconvenience and offend everyone equally. Critics call them expensive theatre props that will provide little protection against serious threats. The federal government may not be good at “spreading wealth around,” but it excels at spreading misery.
A citizens’ group is trying to organize an “Opt Out Day” for November 24, the busiest flying day of the holiday season, in which travelers would refuse both body scans and pat-downs, as a gesture of protest. Hundreds of unhappy travelers have been telling both airlines and the TSA they won’t fly anymore because of these security procedures. This is the kind of stress a shaky airline industry does not need. They can’t afford to lose much more business. The results of a major airline collapse would dwarf any jobs that were “saved or created” when the government spent millions of stimulus dollars creating these unpopular body scanners.