Chris Calabrese,
Legislative Counsel, ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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October 1, 2009

As we gear up for another holiday season, the Transportation Security Administration has added a new wrinkle: naked travel.

USA Today has just reported that the TSA has purchased “150 security machines at airport checkpoints that enable screeners to see under passengers’ clothes”. These virtual strip searches allow TSA screeners to see detailed images of passengers’ bodies. These machines have been around for a while, but it appears they have gone mainstream. This purchase will “vastly expand the use of the controversial body scanners.”

But it’s not just the program’s expansion that is raising eyebrows. TSA has always maintained that these machines are for secondary screening only, and that no one will have to undergo a virtual strip search. But now the machines will be used in place of metal detectors. Many people will likely go through them without ever knowing that there is a person in the room next door checking out their assets.

Beyond the horrible invasion of privacy, this retreat from the truth calls into question TSA’s other protections for the program. Specifically, officers who view the image are never supposed to see the live passenger, and the passenger’s face is blurred. Further, officers aren’t allowed to bring cameras into the room where these images are viewed, and the computer system is not supposed to be able to retain images. But this is nowhere in law or regulation. It’s simply TSA policy, subject to change at any time.

TSA has resisted commonsense regulation — already passed in the House — that would largely codify what was supposed to be their existing policy and assure that these machines are only used for secondary screening. The Senate should quickly follow the House’s lead. If you’d like to take action on this issue, please click here.

Any security mechanism can be defeated. Security is always a balance between effectiveness and invasiveness. In this case, the TSA has gone too far. Can American travelers please put their clothes back on?

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