Empire editorial: Time to talk about TSA's line

Posted: Thursday, November 25, 2010

The pot of Americans' notions of personal civil liberty is often slow to boil over, but it seems it has with the increasing introduction of advanced imaging technology machines at airports across the country. These machines provide TSA screeners with a digitized image of a passenger's body.

The agency has sworn these images are not stored, but a similar scanner at a Florida federal courthouse and operated under the auspices of the U.S. Marshals' authority did store more than 35,000 images. Additionally, a report from the advocacy group Electronic Privacy Information Center states the devices used at airports do have the ability to store images, though the report stops short of saying TSA has actually done so.

On its website, EPIC even quotes security experts saying the body scans are "the equivalent of 'a physically invasive strip-search.'" Maybe, though the examples of what the machines actually display are seemingly less than explicit or titillating.

What is more alarming is the TSA's new pat-down procedure, which allows human screeners "to use their fingers and palms to feel and probe for hidden weapons and devices around sensitive body parts, such as the breast and groin areas," according to the Los Angeles Times. A Michigan man's physical screen was so rough, it caused his ostomy bag to open and spill urine all over himself and his body. This procedure - not optional for passengers who can't or won't go through the new advanced imaging scanners, or who are selected for further screening - is excessive when used by TSA agents who are not, at a minimum, required to state why a traveler's actions raised suspicions enough to justify such treatment.

The balance between reasonable security precaution and unacceptable-at-any-cost privacy invasions has, for the last decade, moved in one direction. If you need a visual reminder of this, check the history of the Department of Homeland Security's National Threat Level, which has increased several times from yellow (elevated) to orange (high) or red (severe), but has never once dipped into blue (guarded) or green (low) territory.

The time for debate about how much security is too much is overdue. If we, as a nation, are going to be OK with PG-13 pat-downs and body imaging scans, then so be it. But the nation needs to reach a consensus on that point, not have measures imposed upon the populace without explanation or anything approaching freely given consent. Sure, it can be argued consent is given when a plane ticket is purchased. But, how meaningful is that permission for a person in Juneau, who cannot get to Anchorage or anywhere in the Lower 48 quickly without hopping on a plane? Here, deciding whether or not to fly isn't about saving a few hours in the air versus a few dollars on the road. Instead, it's about staying home or going out.

It's a laudable goal to want to avoid a 9/11 for a new decade. But that goal must be measured against other things we want to be well-known for, such as freedom to freely travel and freedom from unreasonable searches. It's time to have a national discussion about where we want the scales to tilt.

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