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Body Scanner Humiliation Reportedly Sparks Alleged Assault

The statue of liberty being x-rayed.
The statue of liberty being x-rayed.
Jay Stanley,
Senior Policy Analyst,
ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project
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May 7, 2010

The Miami Herald and the Smoking Gun are reporting that a Miami TSA officer has been charged with aggravated battery after he attacked a coworker. The assault was reportedly sparked by the fact that the man’s colleagues were making fun of the size of the officer’s genitalia seen as he walked through a full-body airport scanner.

It’s not clear whether the TSA officer in this case, Rolando Negrin, volunteered to enter the full-body scanner, or was required to do so. The incident certainly raises all kinds of questions on the employee privacy front. But the story is also a good reminder that (as I’ve observed before) while security policymakers often think of everything in terms of data flow systems and information processing, these scanners are in the hands of human beings, with all their messy faults, foibles and temptations.

From the start, the TSA has promised that these machines would be wrapped up in an airtight package of professionalism and privacy protections. And from the start, we at the ACLU have reminded the world that such promises should be regarded skeptically. For example, several years ago we wrote a fact sheet (since updated) saying this:

Given the irresistible pull that images created by this system will create on some employees, how much assurance can we really have that images are not going to end up on the Internet? Unfortunately, the government’s record of safeguarding private information is not great.

The reported antics of the TSA screeners in Miami are the latest incident to remind us of this. Others include:

  • In March, a screener at London’s Heathrow airport was given a police warning after he allegedly captured the image of a female coworker’s body as she inadvertently went through a body scanner. The coworker reported being “traumatized” by the incident.
  • A month earlier, screeners in London fulfilled the ACLU’s predictions when they printed out the body scanner image of Shahrukh Khan, a film star from India, who discovered what was going on when he saw the printouts in the hands of airport personnel.

Both of those incidents were in the U.K., and defenders of the TSA might argue that standards are stricter in the United States. But, documents obtained through open records requests filed by the Electronic Privacy Information Center have recently revealed that contrary to its claims, the TSA’s body scanners do, in fact, have the ability to store and record images. According to another document, the government is storing “approximately 2000 test images” at its test facility. Mr. Negrin’s photo may well be among them.

The Miami screeners’ incident should serve as a reminder to the TSA, to policymakers, and to us all not only how graphic the images created by these scanners really are, but also that those pictures are not abstract data, but images of living, breathing human beings with the full range of human feelings and emotions — sometimes intense ones.

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