By Meghan Heesch
As millions prepare to board flights for Thanksgiving holiday destinations, the TSA’s newest attempt to use technology to balance liberty and security needs has travelers extremely concerned about privacy rights. In a proactive approach to ensure safety, travelers at major airports have full images scanned of their bodies, producing an image described by the Associated Press on NPR as “a virtually naked image.” The TSA’s justifications focus entirely on the national security aspect, with TSA head John Pistole claiming that “if we are to detect terrorists, who have again proven innovative and creative in their design and implementation of bombs that are going to blow up airplanes and kill people, then we have to do something that prevents that.”
As the national security concern is heightened after last year’s “underwear bomber” caught the TSA off-guard, does this justify an invasion of privacy to parallel the threat du jour? Travelers already remove their shoes and have bottle of water confiscated before going through security as a result of reactionary approaches. The body scanner technology indeed is an extremely effective proactive measure, but at what cost? To save face, and respond effectively to travelers, the privacy concerns must be addressed concretely and openly to the public, without deferring automatically to the national security justification.
A reasonable expectation of privacy at an airport in a post-9/11 world will clearly include some inconvenience. But given the invasiveness for the privacy-concerned citizen between a thorough pat-down and a scan of one’s naked body, a Hobson’s choice between two undesirable outcomes may seem unreasonable. A lack of official TSA policies and training procedures has only heightened the concern for privacy rights advocates, like the ACLU (see http://www.aclu.org/blog/technology-and-liberty/tsa-has-no-time-train-its-screeners). It is certain that the reasonableness of the expectation for security checks at the airport are in a security sensitive world necessarily must be ensure that scans are destroyed, and not released to the public, as has recently occurred at the Orlando, FL federal courthouse.
Perhaps a potential solution to address both the privacy and the national security concerns in air travel should lie in the technology itself. According to NPR, some European airports have scanners that “produce images in which the traveler is represented as a stick figure, with suspicious objects highlighted.” If the US government and TSA are not merely paying lip service to the privacy concerns, they should seriously invest resources to make this or other alternative technologies a reality, to ensure both safety and privacy for all air travelers.