War on Terror

Expect TSA Strip Search Photos to End Up on TMZ

| by Cato Institute

By Jim Harper

I
wrote here in February about the push and
pull over “strip search machines,” also known as “whole-body imaging” and
“millimeter wave scanning.”

The question is joined: How do you maintain privacy with a technology that’s
fundamentally intrusive? Maybe by using it less. This week, Rep.
Jason Chaffetz
(R-UT) introduced a bill to limit the use of whole-body
imaging.

H.R. 2027, the Aircraft Passenger
Whole-Body Imaging Limitations Act of 2009
, would place several limits:

  • Whole-body imaging could not be the sole or primary method of screening a
    passenger, and it could only be used as a follow-up to other methods like metal
    detection.
  • Passengers would have the right to opt for a pat-down search instead of
    whole-body imaging.
  • Passengers subject to whole-body imaging would have to be provided
    information about the technology and the images it generates, on privacy
    policies, and the right to have the pat-down search instead.
  • Images of passengers generated by whole-body imaging technology could not be
    stored, transferred, shared, or copied in any form after the passenger has
    passed through the security system.


Most of these protections are already TSA policy, but agency
policies are relatively easy to change compared to federal law. Without
limitations like this, these machines are on the natural, mission-creepy path to
becoming mandatory.

Rules, of course, were made to be broken, and it’s only a matter of time —
federal law or not — before TSA agents without proper supervision find a way to
capture images contrary to policy. (Agent in secure area guides Hollywood
starlet to strip search machine, sends SMS message to image reviewer, who takes
camera-phone snap. TMZ devotes a week to the story, and the ensuing
investigation reveals that this has been happening at airports throughout the
country to hundreds of women travelers.)

So this bill is a step forward, but from a very backwards position.
Ultimately, as I wrote before, the solution is to
return responsibility for security to the airlines and airports, who are most
interested in and capable of balancing all the factors that go into safe travel,
including passengers’ privacy, comfort, and peace of mind.