Back to News & Commentary

Responding to Obama on Body Scanners

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
Share This Page
January 8, 2010

In his remarks yesterday President Obama seemed to address some of our arguments for why mass deployment of body scanners is a bad idea. Announcing the administration’s unfortunate embrace of the scanners, Obama paused to note:

Now, there is, of course, no foolproof solution. As we develop new screening technologies and procedures, our adversaries will seek new ways to evade them, as was shown by the Christmas attack. In the never-ending race to protect our country, we have to stay one step ahead of a nimble adversary. That’s what these steps are designed to do. And we will continue to work with Congress to ensure that our intelligence, homeland security, and law enforcement communities have the resources they need to keep the American people safe.

We have, of course, been pointing out that scanners are not only a significant invasion of privacy, but will simply force attackers to resort to body cavity searches or clever smuggling within carryon bags, the screening of which continues to be unreliable. And how that reveals just how marginal an improvement of security against extremely rare attacks the scanners offer in exchange for their substantial cost in dollars – and most of all in lost privacy.

We applaud Obama’s statement that “we will not succumb to a siege mentality that sacrifices the open society and liberties and values that we cherish as Americans.” And also heartening is his overall recognition that improving the intelligence community is the primary solution to the problem.

More to the point, it is good that Obama recognizes that “there is no foolproof solution” to airline screening is a good sign, and that terrorism is a dynamic threat and terrorists will adapt to new security measures. Yet the adminstration is still embracing scanners, when by its own logic it should recognize that scanners will bring at best only a marginal increase in security and are a bad deal. Body scanners don’t equal “staying one step ahead” of terrorists – they are in fact already one step behind.

Deputy National Security Advisor John Brennan, asked about Al Qaeda’s body cavity attack on a Saudi prince responded that:

I went out to Saudi Arabia a week after that attack, was able to work with the prince, see the place where – the room where the attack took place; talked about the explosives that were used in that and the concerns about it…. And we’re continuing to work with the Saudis and others about these types of techniques that are being used by al Qaeda.

And I think as Secretary Napolitano said, what we’re trying to do is to stay a step ahead. Obviously they are looking at all these different types of techniques so they can defeat our security perimeter, so what we need to do is continue to advance and evolve. And that’s what we’re doing.

That seems to pretty clearly anticipate the development of a screening technique that can actually detect objects WITHIN the human body – I’m not sure what else it could mean.

The administration needs to be asked several questions about this:

  1. Is that in fact what Brennan meant?
  2. Does the administration view such searches as a reasonable means of carrying out airport security?
  3. Is there government research, exploration or serious discussion of any kind underway into such a scanning machine for airports?
  4. Are there plausible technological options for detecting explosives within body cavities that do not involve significant doses of x-rays and could conceivably be deployed within the physical and time constraints of the airport environment?

When frightening things happen politicians always come under enormous pressure to “do something.” Which recalls the faulty old logic:

Something must be done!
This is something.
Therefore, this must be done.

But we need to be grownups and realize that 100% security will never be attained. So we have to draw the line somewhere when it comes to allowing the government to invade our privacy for marginal increases in protection against specific types of attacks. The routine use of body scanners is well on the other side of that line.

Learn More About the Issues on This Page