While I am no fan of the TSA, I will give them credit when credit is due. The announcement this week that the TSA will introduce new software on full body scanners that generates an image of a human outline rather than the nude images currently produced is a step in the right direction.
Bowing to pressure from privacy advocates and an increasingly skeptical Congress, TSA Administrator John Pistole stated:
We are always looking for new technology and procedures that will both enhance security while strengthening privacy protections…Testing this new software will help us confirm test results that indicate it can provide the same high level of security as current advanced imaging technology units while further enhancing the privacy protections already in place.
The whole premise of my Fourth Amendment argument was that it was unconstitutional for the TSA to conduct a virtual strip search without probable cause. With measures in place that reduce the naked images to merely a generic silhouette, much of my privacy concerns evaporate.
Nevertheless, let’s not be too hasty to celebrate. First, the new technology is only in a prototype stage and will be tested at Las Vegas, Atlanta, and Washington National. Second, the new software will only be installed on millimeter wave technology for now. Testing on backscatter X-ray systems will not start until this fall. Third, the machines will still be able to store images—as the TSA mandated when procuring the machines yet continues to deny publicly. While the images will be filtered, it is not clear yet how easily they can be reverted back to their nude form. Fourth, there is still no independent safety data on these machines. While I do not think these machines pose a health risk, I am not comfortable just taking the TSA’s word for it—they certainly have not always been honest in the past.
More importantly, Pistole’s statement is disingenuous and misleading. His assertion that the current advanced imaging technology (AIT) units provide a “high level of security” is simply not confirmed by the facts. As I have shared before, the machines were never tested in an operational environment before they were deployed and recently did not catch an undercover agent smuggling in a handgun not once, but five times through an AIT machine in Dallas.
Rep. Bennie Thompson’s (D-Miss.) thoughts sum up my own:
Since the deployment of advanced imaging technology machines at our nation’s airports, I have urged TSA to implement privacy and efficiency safeguards to accompany the use of this technology. While I commend TSA for its continuing effort to improve our aviation security, we must also continue to protect the privacy of the flying public. Therefore, I call on the Department of Homeland Security to conduct an updated Privacy Impact Assessment and Civil Liberties Impact Assessment on this new system. I fully expect the department’s cooperation and await the results of their reviews. These machines have already cost taxpayers millions of dollars and it is critical that TSA proceed with caution to ensure that our tax dollars are not wasted.
For now, I will continue to opt-out of walking through full body scanners simply to show my disgust for the manner in which the TSA introduced these machines and because I still have ideological concerns over the federal government controlling internal air travel in the United States so closely. For the first time, though, I can envision myself using these machines at a future time.
Make no mistake: it is all security theatre, though. I wish Congress and the President had the guts to stop pandering to the “security first” crowd and frankly admitted to the American people that someone who really wants to smuggle something onboard an aircraft…will find a way to do so. All the security game we currently play does is slow down and inconvenience the millions of travelers who are simply trying to get from one point to another.