Debate Forum Topic 11/17/10


As millions of Americans get ready to take to the skies for the Thanksgiving holiday, there’s growing anxiety over new Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) security pat-downs and body-imaging scanners at airports. These new techniques come in response to attempts by terrorists, like the underwear bomber, to smuggle explosive materials onto planes.  The TSA defends the new techniques as necessary to stay ahead of terrorists and extremists by using both new technologies and tested law enforcement techniques. Critics claim that the new procedures are too invasive and violate personal privacy rights.

The use by TSA of these new controversial procedures at checkpoints began nationwide on October 29. There are now 450 whole-body scanners in airports nationwide. According to the TSA, about 500 scanners will be online by the end of the year, and another 500 are expected to be installed next year. Ultimately, the agency plans to have the new machines replace metal detectors at all of the roughly 2,000 U.S. airport checkpoints. The TSA’s “Advanced Imaging Technology” (AIT) machines use two separate means of creating images of passengers – backscatter X-ray technology and millimeter-wave technology. This technology basically uses radiation to penetrate a person’s clothing and create a nude image of the person. This technology is used to determine whether or not a person has hidden items under their clothing that could be used as a weapon.

The critics of the AIT machines argue that there are two problems with their use. First, there is a privacy issue in that the image shows a very detailed image of the passenger’s body and genitalia. The TSA screener is essentially viewing the image of the passenger’s naked body.  The second issue with these AIT machines addressed by some groups, including two pilot unions, is that the cumulative effect of the backscatter X-ray could cause cancer to some passengers. According to several scientists from the University of California at San Francisco, skin cancer is the primary concern.  Each time the same person receives a backscatter scan, the small risk associated with the low dose of radiation of a single scan is multiplied by the number of exposures. They are most concerned about frequent fliers, pilots and young people, because children are more sensitive to radiation.

For those embarrassed by such a personal image of their body being viewed by the TSA screener, there is an opt-out of full-body scanning for all passengers passing through U.S. airports. Those who opt out of the screening technique will receive additional screening, including the new procedure. In the new pat-downs, officers use open hands and fingers instead of the backs of their hands to go over the passengers’ body, including the genital area and breasts. The procedures allow a TSA agent to move men’s genitalia to the side for full access and search around and under women’s breasts for a more thorough examination of these, once off-limit, body parts. Critics argue that the pat-downs amount to sexual assault and that is a complete violation of one’s privacy. The Allied Pilots Association calls the pat-down process a “demeaning experience” and one pilot complained it amounted to “sexual molestation.”  The head of a flight attendants’ union local said that for anyone who has been sexually assaulted, it will “dredge up some bad memories.”

Although there is a growing backlash against the new procedures, the Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano is standing by the multi-layered approach and stated recently in an editorial that the scanners are safe and the pat-downs are discreet. Although the American public has endured the many security features that have made air travel burdensome since 9/11, the TSA seems to have a major insurrection on their hands with the implementation of these new procedures.

Do the new TSA procedures of using AIT machines and enhanced pat-down techniques violate passengers’ personal privacy?

Is the need to protect our personal privacy outweighed by the need to protect us from terror attacks?

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