By Elizabeth Wong, Associate Director
Thanksgiving is one of the busiest travel holidays, so there has been much talk recently about the Transportation Security Agency’s (TSA) expanded use of full-body scanners and invasive searches.  A Virginia resident has even called for a boycott of the scanners on what he’s calling, National Opt-Out Day.
So why all the fuss over full-body scanners?  What makes them different from previous security checks at the airport?  These scanners use “backscatter” or “millimeter wave” radiation to see through your clothes, giving a revealing image of your body to the TSA agent located in another room.  After all, they’re not known as ‘naked’ scanners for nothing.
TSA claims these machines are safe and efficient.  They also claim that the full-body scanners cannot save images. However, these claims are arguable.  Scientists in San Francisco question the safety of the radiation levels. And privacy advocates, through a Freedom of Information Act request, found that TSA requires the scanners to have the ability to store and send images in “test mode.” It is certainly possible that TSA could use this capability to store your naked image.  This technology is much more invasive than metal detectors, and as such should be used only when someone is considered a high security risk.
In this day and age of technology, we are constantly balancing privacy rights with security.  Ever since 9/11, airline security has been getting tighter and policies have been enacted in an attempt to prevent future terrorist attacks.  Each time someone escapes detection and nearly succeeds to wreak havoc, TSA comes up with some “new” method to heighten security.  But these “new” methods are really just reactions to events that have already occurred.
In December 2001 Richard Reid (a.k.a. “the shoe bomber”) boarded an airplane with explosives in his shoes, and ever since then passengers are asked to remove their shoes for inspection.
In August 2006 British security officials foiled a terrorist plot involving the use liquids and gels that threatened 10 transatlantic flights.   Airlines then started limiting the amount of liquids, aerosols and gels people could have in their carry-on luggage to three ounces.
Most recently, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (a.k.a. “the underwear bomber” or “Christmas Day bomber”) has led TSA to roll out the full-body scanners.  TSA says the scanners would have caught the weapon hiding in Abdulmutallab’s underwear.  However, according to news reports, that claim is debatable.   The full-body scanners may not detect low-density materials, like liquids, powders, and thin plastics.
In the balance between privacy and security, it seems the new full-body scanners are more trouble than they’re worth.  Since TSA is currently unlikely to change their minds about using the scanners, what’s a traveler to do?  Know Your Options at the Airport! You can opt out of using the scanner and instead be subject to a physical pat-down.
However, travelers should be aware that the pat-down procedures have also been modified to what some are calling an aggressive groping.  As several media outlets have reported, the more invasive pat-down involve TSA agents’ using their fingers and palms (not just the back of their hands) to inspect the entire body, including sensitive and personal areas. (See also ‘TSA Pulls Aside Humorist Dave Barry for “Blurred Groin.”)
Until the government can find a way to get ahead of the game, security officials will continue to be reacting to the last disaster instead of finding creative ways to thwart those innovative terrorist masterminds.  In the meantime, TSA has begun to push passengers to their limit.  There comes a time when push comes to shove, and the public says-- in the words of Twisted Sister-- “We’re not going to take it, anymore.”
If you can’t take the invasion of our privacy rights anymore, take action! Send a message to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and urge her to respect passengers’ privacy rights.
For More Information:
ACLU: About Airport Security
TSA: Which airports have the full-body scanners?