The TSA Invitation to Airport Scans and Gropes
Shackling Freedom for Security
Since the bombing of the Twin Towers, America has been surrendering its freedom for security as fast as it can. It didn’t whimper when funds were allocated for extra guards and cameras at docks and ports. It didn’t sniff at new border restrictions. It didn’t cry when the Transportation Security Administration began confiscating and even fining passengers for finding in their carry on luggage, such items as nail clippers with attached file, knitting needles, more than 16 ounces of toner and ink cartridges, sports equipment, and extra lithium ion batteries, although you may carry the batteries in your cell phone and lap top.
Airports used to be a wonderful place; full of bustling people wearing the tail ends of foreign countries dangling behind them like exotic perfume, families lined in the waiting room, waiting for a loved one, shouts of laughter and bursts of tears. The shops, the scaled down restaurants, the coffee stands made the wait for a tardy plane comfortable; even pleasurable. It was difficult to resist the invitation to pick up somebody at the airport. Now, it’s more like visiting an inmate at a high security prison.
The grounds are silently patrolled by security personnel, the vehicles whisking in and out of traffic, as though to say, get your business done and move on. The doors, once occupied by baggage assistance employees dressed in smart clothing, are now dominated by grim faced agents, frowning suspiciously at everyone who dares enter the lobby. The waiting rooms are nearly empty. Rather than go through the glass doors that will set off a buzzer if you don’t take off your shoes with their metal clips, they wait in the lobby, adding a mash of confusion to the passengers waiting in line for tickets.
The most recent privacy invasive measure taken by the TSA has stirred a great deal of controversy; a choice between full body scans or a search that consists of running the hands up the thighs, touching genitalia and checking breasts. This policy, which went into effect November of 2010, brought a lot of protest, but not enough to keep people from flying for the holidays. Deciding the use of full body scanning, which shows the body in full but somewhat fuzzy detail, did not create a discernible lapse in air transportation, they have decided to go on with their plans to have 1,000 full body scanners in airports by the end of this year. An ABC/Washington Post poll conducted by Langer Associates and released November 22, 2010 found that 64 percent of Americans favored the full-body x-ray scanners, but that 50 percent think the “enhanced” pat-downs go too far.
Sentiments are beginning to change. Alaska State Representative, Democrat Sharon Cissna, has refused to take what she calls an “invasive, probing pat-down”, and is taking a ferry from Seattle to Juneau instead of flying. Cissna was in Seattle for medical treatment and had been planning to fly back to Juneau the following Sunday night to rejoin the legislative session. She underwent a body scan while going through airport security and was singled out for a full body pat-down because she’d had a mastectomy, said her chief of staff, Michelle Scannell.
TSA did not return calls placed to them by Alaskan news reporters, but cancer survivors claim TSA gives extra screening if there is a prosthetic breast involved. The TSA website states. “security officers will need to see and touch your prosthetic device, cast or support brace as part of the screening process.”
Cissna sent out a report the following Monday saying the body scan showed scars from her breast cancer and knew that meant there would be the “invasive, probing hand of a stranger” as she had experienced a similar incident three months earlier. Said Cissna, “facing the agent I began to remember what my husband and I’d decided after the previous intensive physical search. That I never had to submit to that horror again! It would be difficult, we agreed, but I had the choice to say no, this twisted policy did not have to be the price of flying to Juneau!”
On Wednesday, the house representatives took a stand in support of Cissna. State Rep. Chris Tuck, another Democrat from Anchorage, said Cissna stood up for her rights and “chose respect.”
He called for a “sense of the House that efficient travel is a cornerstone of our economy and our quality of life especially here in Alaska, and that no one should have to sacrifice their dignity in order to travel.”
The House voted 36-2 to adopt that sentiment. Reps. Bob Lynn, R-Anchorage, and Dan Saddler, R-Eagle River, voted “no.” Cissna and Rep. Anna Fairclough, another Eagle River Republican, were absent.
Just before the holiday season, a software engineer rocked the U-Tube world when he refused a full body scan, claiming privacy and health concerns; nor did he wish to be groped by personnel, stating his now immortal words, “don’t touch my junk!” While his refusal meant he didn’t get to fly either, the incident was recorded and displayed on the Internet.
How safe are body scans? According to the medical profession at the University of California, San Francisco, not very safe at all. On April 6th., 2010 they sent a letter to Dr. John P. Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and technology, urging that he withdraw his support of full body scanners in airports.
The report compiled by the University stated, “Unlike other scanners, these new devices operate at relatively low beam energies (28keV). The majority of their energy is delivered to the skin and the underlying tissue. Thus, while the dose would be safe if it were distributed throughout the volume
of the entire body, the dose to the skin may be dangerously high.
The X-ray dose from these devices has often been compared in the media to the cosmic ray exposure inherent to airplane travel or that of a chest X-ray. However, this comparison is very misleading: both the air travel cosmic ray exposure and chest X-rays have much higher X-ray energies and the health consequences are appropriately understood in terms of the whole body volume dose. In contrast, these new airport scanners are largely depositing their energy into the skin and immediately adjacent tissue, and since this is such a small fraction of body weight/vol, possibly by one to two orders of magnitude, the real dose to the skin is now high.
In addition, it appears that real independent safety data do not exist. A search, ultimately finding top FDA radiation physics staff, suggests that the relevant radiation quantity, the Flux photons per unit area and time (because this is a scanning device) has not been characterized. Instead an indirect test (Air Kerma) was made that emphasized the whole body exposure value, and thus it appears that the danger is low when compared to cosmic rays during airplane travel and a chest X-ray dose.”
The concerns for the effects of full body scans were numerous. The results of the independent research raised the following issues, which at the time of this reporting, have not been addressed:
- A) The large population of older travelers, >65 years of age, is particularly at risk from the mutagenic effects of the X-rays based on the known biology of melanocyte aging.
- B) A fraction of the female population is especially sensitive to mutagenesis-
- provoking radiation leading to breast cancer. Notably, because these women,
- who have defects in DNA repair mechanisms, are particularly prone to cancer,
- X-ray mammograms are not performed on them. The dose to breast tissue
- beneath the skin represents a similar risk.
- C) Blood (white blood cells) perfusing the skin is also at risk.
- D) The population of immunocompromised individuals–HIV and cancer
- patients (see above) is likely to be at risk for cancer induction by the high skin dose
- E) The risk of radiation emission to children and adolescents does not appear to have been fully evaluated.
- F) The policy towards pregnant women needs to be defined once the theoretical risks to the fetus are determined.
- G) Because of the proximity of the testicles to skin, this tissue is at risk for sperm mutagenesis.
- H) Have the effects of the radiation on the cornea and thymus been determined?
TSA isn’t very worried about the health risks, although they have recently decided the peek show didn’t need to be quite so graphic. In response to privacy concerns, it announced it is introducing some new software that will show the naked views of passengers only as asexual cookie cutter outlines. This software is now being used at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas and will be tested at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson and D.C.’s Reagan National in short order.
A Gizmodo investigation revealed 100 of the photographs saved by the Gen 2 millimeter wave scanner from Brijot Imaging Systems, Inc., obtained by a FOIA request after it was recently revealed that U.S. Marshals operating the machine in the Orlando, Florida courthouse had improperly-perhaps illegally-saved images of the scans of public servants and private citizens.
Back on Aug. 4, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) was given more than 100 of 35,000 images that an Orlando courthouse kept on its scanner. The privacy watchdog group had filed a Freedom of Information Act request and went to court to obtain the images.
Today, as the debate over the scanners and the TSA’s new patdown procedure heats up, technology blog Gizmodo released some of those images.
“The public should absolutely be concerned,” EPIC’s Ginger McCall told ABC News. “Very detailed and graphic pictures of people’s naked bodies could end up out there on the Internet.”
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Pistole on Monday defended the machines, saying they are safe, necessary and that images are never stored by the TSA.
Several private security experts also spoke about the necessity of such machines.
“The TSA, to me, gives credible assurances that that isn’t going to happen,” said Cathal “Irish” Flynn, a former FAA associate administrator for security who now runs his own consulting firm. “Could there be mistakes? Yes, I suppose so. But as I listen to them, they seem determined not to let that happen.”
According to a high-ranking source inside the TSA, an undercover agent was able to pass through five full-body scanners at the Dallas Ft. Worth International Airport last weekend with a gun stuffed in her underwear. None of the security personnel noticed. The TSA did not deny the results of the test, but offered this statement: “Our security officers are one of the most heavily tested federal workforces in the nation. We regularly test our officers in a variety of ways to ensure the effectiveness of our technology, security measures and the overall layered system. For security reasons, we do not publicize or comment on the results of covert tests, however advanced imaging technology is an effective tool to detect both metallic and nonmetallic items hidden on passengers.”
The machines “detect both metallic and nonmetallic threat items to keep passengers safe,” said Kristin Lee, spokeswoman for TSA, in a written statement. “It is proven technology, and we are highly confident in its detection capability.”
Last January, when the government’s appetite for body scanners got a big boost from the underwear bomber, there was skepticism about their ability to detect the types of explosives favored by would-be airline bombers.
Known by their opponents as “digital strip search” machines, the full-body scanners use one of two technologies—millimeter wave sensors or backscatter x-rays—to see through clothing, producing ghostly images of naked passengers. Yet critics say that these, too, are highly fallible, and are incapable of revealing explosives hidden in body cavities—an age-old method for smuggling contraband. If that’s the case, a terrorist could hide the entire bomb works within his or her body, and breeze through the virtual strip search undetected. The London Independent reported on “authoritative claims that officials at the [UK] Department for Transport and the Home Office have already tested the scanners and were not persuaded that they would work comprehensively against terrorist threats to aviation.” A British defense-research firm reportedly found the machines unreliable in detecting “low-density” materials like plastics, chemicals, and liquids—precisely what the underwear bomber had stuffed in his briefs.
Neither does Canada view the full body scans as an effective means of detecting a terrorist. In a redacted report from the Canadian Transport people, it was determined that full body scanners, especially in combination with metal detectors, served very little purpose. A person passing through one machine after another would have to place their arms in different positions and the Canadians found the body scanners would fail to detect objects like rings or bracelets on extended arms because the mechanism could not reach high enough to take them in.
According to Steve Elson, a former Navy Seal who worked on the U.S. government’s Red Team, it would be very easy for a terrorist to by pass security. “Nobody touches the pilots,” he observed. “All I needed was a pilot’s uniform, bought or stolen, and a photoshop badge. Put explosives on my body, no metal, walk through, pick up my stuff and off to the plane. Likewise, I could do something similar on the ramp. Best time is in cold weather and snow storms. Do it as night approaches. People don’t care about security, just getting the job done and getting out of the weather. Steal a bag tag, make an unauthorized entry (no problem), walk up to a plane and throw it in with 50 lbs explosive.”
Elson has been passing in and out of security checks since Homeland Security first took effect, bringing along a television crew, continuing to penetrate airport security carrying with him all manner of guns and IEDs, and for the most part avoiding detection. According to Elson, “people don’t really worry about security, just getting the job done.”
America wanted security and was willing to trade in its right to travel with privacy and dignity. Security is an illusive quality. No matter how many safe guards are put up, there is always someone who will find a way around them. All it takes is determination and ingenuity. Instead of questioning how they can become more secure, they should go to the root; why America is under attack.
The heightened fear has increased paranoia, resulting in stricter immigration laws, biases toward religious preferences and a major break-down in International relations. The heightened fear has allowed photographic imaging that amounts to voyeurism, with a privacy clause already violated by US Marshalls. While the modest might be gratified that new image technology will allow their bodies with all its iniquities to pass as nothing more than cookie cutter shapes, the question of health has still not been addressed. The health conscious and high risk cancer potential passengers would prefer their security is not bombarded by radioactivity. Those with prosthetic devices do not wish to be exposed to invasive pat-downs
It’s pitiful when a country becomes so petrified with fear, it is even willing to expose itself to pat-downs that amount pre-rape groping. It’s even more pitiful when this invasive policy is ignored until it’s experienced by a State Representative. Said Rep. Cissna, “For nearly fifty years I’ve fought for the rights of assault victims, population in which my wonderful Alaska sadly ranks number one, both for men and women who have been abused,” Cissna said in her statement. “The very last thing an assault victim or molested person can deal with is yet more trauma and the groping of strangers, the hands of government ‘safety’ policy.”
America has sacrificed much for this elusive security that has done nothing but demean and dehumanize it. It has been humbled and humiliated, its privacy stripped. Safety cannot be guaranteed, no matter how many rules and laws are built around it as a protective measure. Safety is more functional when used with caution, not fear. Fear has become a weapon for the acceptance of a military regime whose first order is, “if you don’t subject yourselves to invasive body scans and pat-downs, you don’t get to fly.” When we accept that; when we accept that we will allow our bodies to be probed and scanned with radioactive waves; we will accept anything. Our fear is our poison, striking back at us, eating us alive. America needs to stand up for pride and human dignity before it has nothing at all, only an empty shell called security.
Karla Fetrow: America wanted security and was willing to trade in its right to travel with privacy and dignity. Security is an illusive quality. No matter