When TSA introduced full-body scans of passengers back in 2007 as an alternative to pat-downs, privacy advocates cried foul. Two years later, there are 19 airports with body scanners and the possibility that these machines (which reveal every fold of your body) will become mandatory instead of optional. Today, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) says it will launch a national campaign against the TSA’s scanning machines, gathering signatures in hopes of creating a “viral” consumer movement.
Having followed these machines for some time, I agree with EPIC’s concerns. I do give the TSA props for improving their “privacy algorithm“: Though nicknamed “the Peeper,” millimeter wave scanners are definitely less graphic than the backscatter machines previously used by the TSA. But as you can see on the agency’s site by the one, small picture of a scan they provide, the millimeter wave machines still reveal clear outlines of breasts and genetalia. And despite what’s shown on the TSA’s brief informational videos, not all travelers are 40-something men. The bodies of children and women and the elderly are also being scanned. I think if a news channel showed a child in the scanning machine, it would increase public concern about the machines. Few parents, I would wager, are happy to have a total stranger see a scan of their child’s naked body. That said, it’s a hard choice between having your daughter patted down in front of you, or having her nude image seen by some random person 100 yards away.
Although a TSA spokeswoman told CNN that staffers viewing images “aren’t allowed to bring cameras, cell phones, or any recording device into the room,” I just don’t trust that an image won’t be recorded or leaked. After all, the TSA is not particularly known for its respect for passenger privacy. (Remember that 2005 data dump lawsuit?) In fact, as the GAO found out in an investigation, TSA staffers will hassle you over your prescription shampoo, but totally miss the bomb parts you just brought through security in your carry-on. All the technology in the world ain’t gonna fix human error. For my tax-payer dollar, I’d prefer that the government spend less on expensive technology that treats all passengers, even infants, as possible terrorists, and spend more on intelligence-gathering that prevents the real terrorists from making it to the airport in the first place.
(p.s. For an informative 60 Minutes look inside the TSA, click here.)