New Airport Body Scanners Troubling to ACLU Privacy Expert

October 11, 2007 12:00 am

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The following is a statement from Barry Steinhardt, Director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Program.

WASHINGTON — The Active Millimeter Wave body scanners that Homeland Security has announced raise troubling questions about passenger privacy and ultimately their utility as a security measure.

We very much appreciate the fact that Transportation Security Administration Administrator Kip Hawley met with us yesterday and briefed us about the agency’s plans. But we are not convinced that it is the right thing for America.

First, this technology produces strikingly graphic images of passengers’ bodies. Those images reveal not only our private body parts, but also intimate medical details like colostomy bags. That degree of examination amounts to a significant – and for some people humiliating – assault on the essential dignity of passengers that citizens in a free nation should not have to tolerate.

Second, we question the supposed voluntary nature of this scan – TSA’s assumption that the people who “consent” to this body scan really understand what they’re consenting to, and that it will long remain something over which passengers will be allowed to exercise any choice at all.

Third, we are skeptical of the privacy safeguards that the TSA is touting. They say that they are obscuring faces, but that is just a software fix that can be undone as easily as it is applied. And obscuring faces does not hide the fact that rest of the body will be vividly displayed.

They also say they are not keeping the images. That protection would certainly be a vital step for such a potentially invasive system, but given the irresistible pull that images created by this system will create on some employees (for example when a celebrity like George Clooney or someone with an unusual or “freakish” body goes through the system), our attitude is one of ‘trust but verify.’ We would like to see strong independent and legally binding assurance that the policy will be enforced and unchanged.

We question whether TSA, which has still not addressed many very basic problems with transportation security such as cargo screening, should be spending large sums of money on these very expensive devices.

Finally, we wonder how many of the people who submit to this bodyscan will end up having to do a pat-down search anyway because of limits in the technology’s ability to definitively identify suspected threats. Our impression is that a very high percentage of the passengers who opt for a scan will still wind up being physically searched because TSA officials will have trouble distinguishing threatening objects from ordinary ones like a wallet.

We urge TSA to reconsider using this detection system and to consider others that are less invasive, less costly and less damaging to privacy.

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