Will Airline Safety Cost You Your Privacy?

Footage of jet airliners crashing into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001

The first full-body scanner was developed in 1992 by Dr. Steven W. Smith. These devices were first used at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol in 2007, and by November of 2010, the United States Transportation Security Administration reported that 385 full-body scanners were in use at 68 airports across America. Ostensibly, these devices were installed and implemented with the safety of passengers in mind, in response to the numerous concerns from both civilians and government officials that arose from the infamous attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.

Ellen Terrell

However, many travelers griped about the invasion of privacy, as the backscatter x-ray imaging used in the scanners results in a picture of a person’s naked body being displayed on a screen. There also have been numerous reports that the machines have been used to make female passengers the object of sexual harassment. In February 2012, CBS 11 News in Dallas, Texas, reported about Ellen Terrell, who was made to walk through a scanner three times at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. Terrell received a compliment about her “cute figure” from the female security officer operating the scanner, and was made to walk through the machine a second and third time. Male screeners in a back room radioed the woman at the machine that Terrell’s body image came up blurry, but after the third scan, the woman on duty told her colleagues via microphone in a frustrated tone, “Come on, guys… it is not blurry. I’m letting her go.”

Both Ellen Terrell and her husband Charles drew the conclusion that she had been sent through the scanner only so that the male transportation security officers remotely watching the scanner’s transmission could leer at her. Terrell is not the only woman registering such a grievance. So far, over 500 women have filed complaints about being targeted for voyeurism by transportation security officers. One woman remarked that as she waited her turn, she noticed that only women were being selected for nude body scans.

An image from a full-body scanner

Moreover, although Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano backed up the TSA’s claim that the backscatter imaging machines were safe, research conducted in 1998 by a panel of radiation experts revealed that up to one hundred passengers could develop cancer each year from the radiation produced by the naked body scanners. In late June 2011, representatives from the transportation security officer’s union reported that there was a rash of cancer diagnoses among TSOs at Logan International Airport in Boston, Massachusetts. In November of that year, the European Union issued a ban of full-body X-ray scanners, amidst reports linking the use of the machine to cases of cancer. EU member states were instructed not to install the scanners until the risks were properly assessed, and the machines could be totally banned in April 2012 if experts discover conclusive proof of a cancer risk.

Around the time the TSA reported widespread use of full-body scanners at American airports in late 2010, Jonathan Corbett, the CEO of New York-based web consulting firm FourTen, filed a lawsuit in a Federal Court in Miami, Florida against the TSA, citing violation of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which states that, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” Corbett maintains that his lawsuit is not for monetary gain, but instead seeks an injunction to preserve the rights of citizens as provided by the aforementioned Amendment.

Jonathan Corbett, as seen in his viral video about the TSA’s full-body scanners

In March of 2012, Jonathan Corbett posted a video on YouTube demonstrating a fatal flaw inherent to the backscatter X-ray imaging machines. In the video in question, which quickly went viral, he also cited former Israel Airport Authority chief of security Rafi Sela’s remark to Canada’s House of Commons Transport Committee in April 2010 that he could “overcome the body scanners with enough explosives to bring down a Boeing 747.” As such, officials at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport were reluctant to purchase these scanners.

In Jonathan Corbett’s video, frontal and rear views of a person being searched are drawn on a scanner’s monitor using light colors against a black background. “The individuals are concealing metallic objects that you can see as a black shape on their light figure,” says Corbett as he walks us through the process. “Again that’s light figure, black background, and BLACK threat items. Yes that’s right, if you have a metallic object on your side, it will be the same color as the background and therefore completely invisible to both visual and automated inspection.” After sewing a pocket onto the side of his shirt, Corbett smuggles an empty metal carrying case through Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and Cleveland-Hopkins International Airport, defeating both a backscatter x-ray machine and a more newfangled millimeter wave scanner with in-built threat detection. Both incidents were documented by Corbett using a hidden portable camera.

“While I carried the metal case empty, by one with mal-intent, it could easily have been filled with razor blades, explosives, or one of Charlie Sheen’s infamous 7 gram rocks of cocaine,” observes Jonathan Corbett. “With a bigger pocket, perhaps sewn on the inside of the shirt, even a firearm could get through.” Having proven his point, Corbett reviles the TSA for being “worse than ineffective; they are an epic fail placing us all in danger;” refers to their nude body scanner program as a “giant fraud” and laments that the operation of the TSA costs American taxpayers eight billion dollars a year. Amid the well-deserved excoriating critique, Corbett makes a demand that the TSA “return to the tried-and-true metal detectors that actually work, and work without invading our privacy, as well as implement better solutions for non-metallic explosives, such as bomb-sniffing dogs and trace detection machines.”

Although Corbett reassures us all that he doesn’t wish to aid and abet terrorists by publishing his video, he expresses mystification that the terrorists had not already figured out how to thwart the full-body scanners. “It’s also beyond belief that the TSA did not already know everything I just told you, and arrogantly decided to disregard our safety,” he muses. However, Corbett’s video prompted a response posted on the TSA’s official blog stating that a full-body scanner “is not a machine that has all the tools we need in one handy device… We’ve never claimed it’s the end all be all.”

Indeed, ensuring the absolute safety of airline passengers is a complicated process, and in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, travelers, airline workers and politicians alike were justifiably fearful that similar events would subsequently occur. Nonetheless, regardless of what new security measures may be implemented at airports, wrongdoers will sooner or later find a way to circumnavigate such procedures. By the same token, no innocent traveler should be made to forfeit his or her privacy allegedly in the interest of safety.

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