Technology

Invasion of the Body Scanners


New airport X-Rays may be a useful way to detect hidden explosives—but officials will have to keep a tight rein on their use

Phoenix flyers will soon be the first travelers digitally stripped naked by a Transportation Security Agency (TSA) X-Ray machine that uses a technology called "backscatter." The device bounces a low-intensity X-Ray beam off the target's body and digitally analyzes and stores the returning signal, or backscatter.

Early on, the process generated a high-resolution picture that for all practical purposes was a nude photo of the target without hair, but including intimate details. The idea is that hidden bombs and guns will be readily detectable on a minimalist body image.

Although the technology isn't new, the government's scanner rollout announcement in December generated a great deal of controversy, split along the usual battle lines. Privacy advocates condemned the scanners as invasive; security enthusiasts insisted that it's preferable to a pat-down.

Choosing Sides

In the face of that pressure, the TSA modified the machine so that it blurs key body parts. But even before the changes, critics questioned the effectiveness of the machine, saying that explosives hidden in body folds, for instance, would be undetectable with a system like Rapiscan, because the electronic probe is extremely shallow. Naysayers assert that TSA's modifications will make it less effective still.

Let's assume for the sake of argument that it does do what it's supposed to do. The question then becomes: Is the added safety worth the privacy invasion of millions of airline passengers every week?

There seem to me to be two perspectives here: What happens if the device is used normally as part of a secure and well-managed process, and what happens if it is not. One reason that it may not be is the obvious problem that even modified, the device still generates nudie pix at least on par with those in the National Geographics I grew up with. Surely these pictures will be good enough that the temptation to view them voyeuristically will be overwhelming for many screeners.

The Naked Truth

Because the pictures are saved to a hard drive in a PC-compatible format, it probably wouldn't be too difficult for TSA workers to export some pictures to an Apple (AAPL) iPod or CD and smuggle them home. It would be especially tempting to save and share a peep-shot of a celebrity.

But any people-screening process detailed enough to provide airport security is subject to abuse if improperly managed. Assuming that TSA puts good procedures in place, the core issue becomes whether digitally enhanced nude photos of travelers inherently violate privacy. Will the resulting discomfort to the individual sufficiently outweigh the potential security gain of the technology?

In general I think that the answer is no—with a caveat. I think that technology like this is useful, and truth be told, any new setup that can detect hidden explosives will probably be intrusive to some extent. Both high- and low-tech body searches can ratchet up the squirm factor, so if the technology actually works the way it's supposed to, I'm willing to put up with the twinge of discomfort.

Enforcing Good Behavior

The caveat is the huge assumption that any embarrassment is in the eyes of the beheld and not triggered by actual bad behavior on the part of TSA screeners. As a frequent air traveler, it is my experience that the professionalism of these security personnel is variable, depending on the airport, so it's not too far-fetched to imagine less-than-responsible screener behavior.

The real issue concerning the eventual utility of these scanners hinges on how well the TSA regulates, monitors, and enforces the behavior of its security staff.

Professionals in our society erect their own form of privacy wall that TSA would do well to copy—they desensitize potentially embarrassing incidents by adopting the mantle of businesslike detachment. The nurse handing us a urinalysis cup or the lawyer eliciting intimate details of a failed marriage must be careful to not interact with us as people but instead to wear the mask of an authority figure, allowing us to preserve our dignity, especially at moments when we are most emotionally vulnerable.

My Bottom Line

I have no problem with a TSA worker seeing a scanned picture of me or even of my children, because I recognize that it's professionally necessary and makes it less likely that something bad will happen to us during our flight. However, if the scanning technician made a personal comment about what he had seen, I would be angry. If he called over a co-worker and pointed, I would be furious. If even blurred backscatter porn of my family or me ever popped up on the Internet, I would sue.

As the never-ending war against terrorists continues, we need a new kind of privacy. Getting professionally patted down or XXX-rayed should be O.K. in this new scheme of things.

Invasive searches are a necessary evil whose potential benefits outweigh any momentary anxiety. The big picture is that the embarrassment we feel is cultural and will disappear as we assimilate the airport experience into our world view.

I would imagine that most American women from the '40s, if magically dropped into our time, would refuse to walk around in public wearing a modern bikini, let alone a thong, yet it's perfectly respectable for women to do so today (sometimes even men). Our views on privacy change with the times.

But God help the first TSA guy who snickers at my love handles.

Holtzman, who blogs at Globalpov.com, is the author of Privacy Lost and founder and chief technology officer of pseuds Inc. He writes frequently on technology and privacy at http://www.businessweek.com/technology/.

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