The government wants the right to “digitally strip search” you when you fly.
A few months ago I went through security at Philadelphia International Airport for a flight to Memphis. Something in my bag didn’t look right to the X-ray scanners, so it was pulled off the conveyor and I was summoned to a side table where a Transportation Security Administration employee opened up my luggage and started to sift through my belongings.
Sure enough, among those belongings lay a ticking time bomb: a pack of condoms. The screener pulled the condoms out of the bag, giggled, made a couple of jokes about them to me—I don’t remember the specifics—and then waved them in the air at another screener nearby while making another joke. It was, all in all, mildly humiliating. And, as far as I know, none of it served any security purpose.
I wouldn’t tell this story, except that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s failed Christmas Day Crotch Bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 to Detroit has revived interest in placing full-body scanners at every airport. At the risk of oversimplifying, the technology would allow TSA screeners to peer through your clothing to see if you’re carrying any weapons—and also, incidentally, how much (ahem) heat you’re packing. It’s like having the X-ray glasses you’ve always dreamed of, except the people who are looking wear a uniform, draw a government paycheck and have the legal power to ogle you the moment you buy a ticket to fly somewhere. Civil libertarians understandably liken the process to a “digital strip search.” And it’s already happening to every passenger who boards a U.S.-bound plane in Nigeria and the Netherlands. American airports may not be far behind.
“Requiring every single person who wants to fly on an airplane to essentially take their clothes off in front of strangers—not very highly trained security officers—is a pretty extreme way to detect the one-in-a-million fliers who might want to blow up a plane,” says Mary Catherine Roper, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “We don’t think that’s an effective way to police for people who want to blow up planes.”
But we’ve apparently gotten to the point where there’s no indignity that conservatives won’t demand in the name of security. Last week, Michael Chertoff, Homeland Security secretary under George W. Bush, scolded “privacy ideologues” for opposing scanners—as though privacy is of trifling value. And usually smart conservative writer Conor Friedersdorf chalked the opposition to scanners up to prudery, claiming they’d be worth it if they somehow made it quicker to get through airport security.
“My hatred for lines is such that I’d gladly walk a gauntlet of TSA employees completely naked were it offered as a speedy alternative to arriving at the airport two hours early and standing in line for 45 awful minutes,” Friedersdorf wrote. “But don’t the people who are apparently uncomfortable with this get checkups at the doctor? Didn’t they take showers after gym class? Shouldn’t it be far easier for the modest person to stay dressed while passing through a scanner being viewed by a TSA employee they’ll likely never see again? So long as faux-nudity isn’t irrationally fetishized, I don’t understand what the big deal is here.”
Here’s the problem: Airport security isn’t the after-gym shower. In that case, you might’ve been naked, but so was everybody else in the class. The vulnerability was roughly equal. Not so in an airport security line. Chances are, faux-nudity will be fetishized; this kind of stuff always is. Sure, security professionals claim that the virtually naked images won’t be stored—but does anybody really want to bet on how long it takes for some of those images to hit some creepy website? Why on earth should we have any confidence?
Ann Davis, a TSA spokesperson, says that screeners shouldn’t have been waving my birth control in the air.
“We do instruct our officers to screen passengers with the utmost respect and dignity,” Davis says. “We expect a high level of professionalism. We’ll investigate when we get reports otherwise.”
And yet problems happen. Dirtbags get jobs that require a discretion they lack. The problem is that—unlike Friedersdorf’s fantasy—TSA screeners aren’t doctors, who have years of training on how to act professionally and a massive financial incentive to keep their jobs. Instead, the airport security line usually appears to be staffed by people who couldn’t quite make muster to staff the overnight shift at 7-Eleven.
It’s possible that the government will decide full-body scans are a necessary tool to deter terrorists, and we will probably adjust. But when I think about standing in an airport security line, watching a blue-shirted man wave my condoms around to his friend, I know abuse of a full-body scan by TSA screeners isn’t just a possibility—it’s a dead-on certainty. ■
My small rant about the Transportation Security Administration and full-body scans has been revised and extended for PW’s print edition. And Conor Friedersdorf, whom I mentioned prominently in both the blog and column, has taken time to respond. He still claims that the intrusive nature of full-body scans is no big deal: I suppose it is [...]
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A few months ago I went through security at Philadelphia International Airport for a flight to Memphis. Something in my bag didn’t look right to the X-ray scanners, so it was pulled off the conveyor and I was summoned to a side table, where a TSA employee opened up my luggage and started to sift [...]
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