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Privacy Issues with Full-body Scanning in Airports

The thwarted plane bombing incident last month continues to raise questions concerning flight security measures that should be in place. Already the U.S. government is placing more air marshals aboard international flights coming into this country in an attempt to deter would-be bombers, hijackers, and the like. According to what I have read, most Americans are in favor of this measure. The same is, however, not true of requiring full-body scans of passengers. Heated objections to this measure such as the following are being raised:

1. Full body scanners used by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) reveal private body parts, a huge invasion of privacy.

2. These devices can store and send images. As such, images of essentially unclothed persons can potentially be obtained by unauthorized persons.

3. These devices can be rendered completely ineffective if someone knows how to tamper with their settings. The fact that many of these devices run on the Windows XP operating system allows for additional ways in which tampering can occur.

I am not comfortable with the fact that the U.S. government has collected all the personal information it has regarding individuals, myself very much included. Although some of this information may be necessary for security purposes, I am quite confident that much of it is not. In theory, U.S. citizens and residents are protected by the 1974 Federal Privacy Act, which was passed in response to growing concern that the US government was about to construct a huge database that made information about individuals centrally available. This law says that a federal agency can collect and store “records” about individuals only when doing so is necessary to do so to achieve that agency’s objectives. Additionally, when records of this nature are created, the agency that creates and stores them must inform the public accordingly, and must suitably safeguard them.

Doesn’t performing, storing and transmitting scans of essentially naked humans violate the Federal Privacy Act? Apparently not. The unfortunate truth is that this statute has proven to be woefully inadequate in protecting any kind of personal privacy whatsoever anyway. Any federal agency can obtain virtually any information about individuals that it wants with only the flimsy justification that it needs this information to do its business. And the U.S. Patriot Act only makes things worse from a privacy perspective. Lamentably, Americans are truly at the mercy of their government when it comes to privacy.

So—when airports obtain more full-body scanners and using these scanners becomes a routine part of the flight safety screening process, what will happen to the images of individuals that the TSA will obtain? I read a posting a few days ago that alleges that the TSA has said it does not intend to retain any such images. I wish I could believe this, but I cannot. If the technology to store and send these images exists, the government will invent some excuse to use it, especially given all the furor and panic over unsafe flying that some people, particularly certain members of the news media, are stirring up. The fact that the government may very well have full body scan images of me at some point in the future greatly troubles me because of the crass invasiveness involved. I fear that book authors Orwell and Huxley may well have been right in their depictions of a world in which individual rights were completely suppressed. But what also greatly troubles me is the risk of full body scan images falling into unauthorized hands. Given the U.S. government’s dismal track record in safeguarding personally identifiable information, data security breaches involving body scan images are inevitable. The agency involved will, of course, profusely apologize, but the damage, the extent of which is potentially so great that it is difficult to truly envision, will already have been done.

There is some hope. If children undergo full body scans, the images obtained will constitute child pornography under current U.S. laws. Perhaps at least children will thus be exempted from the requirement to undergo full body scans at airports. But what about the rest of us? The answer is that it is up to you and me. If enough of us bombard our elected officials, particularly members of Congress, with our objections regarding full body scans at airports, perhaps they will sooner or later get our message and do something about it. One thing is sure, however—if we do nothing, our worst nightmares in terms of privacy infringement are bound to materialize.

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