Privacy activists score victories against more detailed body scanners at airportsChristmas scare revives hot debate over more detailed airport imaging
By David G. Savagec
Jan. 10, 2010
WASHINGTON — - The government has promised more and better security at airports after the near-disaster Christmas Day, but privacy advocates are not prepared to accept the use of full-body scanners as the routine screening system at the nation's airports.
"We don't need to look at naked 8-year-olds and grandmothers to secure airplanes," Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said Friday. "Are we really going to subject 2 million people per day to that? I think it's a false argument to say we have to give up all of our personal privacy in order to have security."
The balance between privacy and security tilts after each major terrorism incident in favor of greater security. But in the past decade, privacy advocates have been successful in blocking or stalling government plans for more searches.
A conservative freshman in the House, Chaffetz won a large, bipartisan majority last year for an amendment to oppose the government's use of body-image scanners as the primary screening system for air travelers. He was joined by the American Civil Liberties Union, which said the scanners are the equivalent of a "virtual strip search."
The pro-privacy stand does not follow the traditional ideological lines; Republicans and Democrats have united on the issue now and in the past.
It has been frustrating, however, for advocates of increased security.
"Privacy and attacks on profiling have been the big hurdles" to developing better security systems for air travelers, said Stewart Baker, a top official of the Department of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush.
Since 2001, privacy advocates have twice blocked moves to collect more personal data on passengers and compile the information in a computerized government system. Critics said mass databases would give the government too much information about ordinary Americans.
Privacy concerns also slowed the move to put more body imaging scanners in the airports. Currently, 19 airports have one or more scanners in use.
Now, after a man accused of having ties to al-Qaida boarded a trans-Atlantic flight, allegedly with explosives in his underwear, the drive to put the full-body scanners in all major airports is renewed. The Transportation Security Administration had already announced plans to buy 300 more. The Senate did not adopt the Chaffetz amendment, so the TSA is free to press ahead with installing the body scanners.
"They significantly enhance security because they can detect metallic and nonmetallic items hidden under clothing," said Greg Soule, a TSA spokesman.
He also suggested that the privacy concerns are exaggerated. "It is 100 percent optional for all passengers," he said. "They can choose to be screened with a full-body pat-down."
Moreover, the screener who observes the passenger's body image is "in a remote location" and cannot see the individual's face, he said. And the body image itself "looks like a chalk etching of a passenger."
Chaffetz disputes that point. "It is a whole body image, and they can spin it 360 degrees. And they can zoom in and see something as small as a nickel or dime," he said. "But they can't spot something hidden in a body cavity. A good, old-fashioned sniffing dog is more effective."
ACLU lawyers said air travelers should not have to face the prospect of exposing a colostomy bag or a mastectomy scar.
"We continue to think the American people are being sold a bill of goods with these body scanners," said Jay Stanley, a privacy expert in the ACLU's Washington office. "Giving the government the authority to scrutinize your body is tremendous invasion of privacy, and the benefits are questionable."
If the scanners become standard, "the terrorists will adapt to it," he added.
Despite their disagreements, defenders of privacy and advocates of increased security agree that better use of information should permit the government to focus its screening on the individuals who pose a threat.
"We clearly need to move faster to a point where we're looking for terrorists, not just weapons," said Baker.