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Surveillance State Blues

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June 6, 2008

Today our Technology and Liberty Program featured some horrifying new photos—courtesy of the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA)—that show what the TSA’s new “see-through” body scanners will show airport security.

Our take? We don’t think flyers should be subjected to such intrusive displays of their naked bodies. Intimate details of the human body, like the size of breasts and genitals, as well as mastectomies, colostomy appliances, and catheter tubes will be in plain view of TSA personnel, and anyone else in the security area who’d like to take a gander at any particular passenger.

As of this month, the machines are reportedly being deployed at Baltimore-Washington International airport, Dallas/Fort Worth, LAX, JFK, Reagan National, Las Vegas, Albuquerque, Detroit, Phoenix, and Miami.

Now, the TSA has promoted the existence of image “scramblers” that will protect the exposure of your face and privates. But these scramblers can be turned off as easily as they’re turned out, making it ripe for abuse by any curious TSA employee. (Is that Angelina Jolie trying to board a plane?) As we saw in the breach of Presidential candidates’ passport files, personal information on celebrities is all-too-enticing unless real privacy protections are put in place. How long will it be before one of the candidates’ naked pictures ends up on the internet? (Since we at the ACLU are non-partisan, we won’t say which candidate we’d prefer).

In other horrifying surveillance news, reports that the NYPD is testing a new surveillance helicopter to patrol the city:

The helicopter’s unmarked paint job belies what’s inside: an arsenal of sophisticated surveillance and tracking equipment powerful enough to read license plates — or scan pedestrians’ faces — from high above the nation’s largest metropolis.

…the $10 million helicopter is just part of the department’s efforts to adopt cutting-edge technology for its counterterrorism operations.

The NYPD also plans to spend tens of millions of dollars strengthening security in the lower Manhattan business district with a network of closed-circuit television cameras and license-plate readers posted at bridges, tunnels and other entry points.

If this sounds vaguely Big Brother-ish to you, you’re only wrong about the “vaguely” aspect. This raised eyebrows at the NYCLU, which filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for information about the city’s “Ring of Steel” surveillance camera program when it was announced last year. And while the NYPD insists that these cameras are a necessity for its counterterrorism operations, it doesn’t address the fact that all this high-tech gadgetry doesn’t work. It’s a proven fact that video surveillance doesn’t deter crime, especially the type of suicide-attack that felled the World Trade Center.

London’s Ring of Steel, after which the New York Ring of Steel was adapted, has proven that surveillance cameras neither deter crime nor help much in solving crimes after the fact, according to study by the British Home Office.

We’re often asked how much privacy people should be willing to trade for more security. But that’s the wrong question. The right question is does the surveillance technology being deployed actually work. Often times, you’ll find the answer is no. When that’s the case, there’s absolutely no reason we should sacrifice our Constitutionally-protected rights — whether they protect the privacy of our naked bodies or our right to walk down the street without being scrutinized by the watchful eye of a security camera.

When the surveillance state’s got you down, it’s time to fight back.

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