After new full-body scanners and pat-down procedures went into effect at U.S. airports Oct. 29, a debate is underway across the nation.
With biometrics and other high-tech identification technologies on the cutting edge of the government’s attempts to protect the country against terrorism and secure its borders, a groundswell movement of privacy activists and pilots is objecting.
Health has been one of the issues raised about the scanners, as they emit radiation, just as standard x-rays or even a normal flight in an airplane would do. The Transportation Security Administration says the backscatter and other full-body scanners emit radiation 89,000 times lower than the safe annual limit, calling into question claims of pilots unions, who recently vowed to boycott the scanners because of health concerns.
Privacy concerns have been somewhat more difficult to discount. U.S. Department of Homeland Security head Janet Napolitano cautioned patience as the new TSA rules were implemented, writing in a Nov. 15 USA Today opinion piece that privacy measures were sufficient.
“All images generated by imaging technology are viewed in a walled-off location not visible to the public,” she said. “The officer assisting the passenger never sees the image, and the officer viewing the image never interacts with the passenger. The imaging technology that we use cannot store, export, print or transmit images.”
Although Napolitano has taken a strong stance on the subject, a number of online privacy organizations and activist groups oppose her. Some have even called for an “Opt Out Day” on Nov. 24, a day when many are traveling for the Thanksgiving holiday. The protest has received a good deal of media attention, with one blogger suggesting protestors wear kilts to stop, or at least humiliate, TSA employees performing enhanced pat-downs.
In addition, the Electronic Privacy Information Center has a privacy lawsuit against TSA in the works. EPIC and OptOutDay.org are both urging concerned citizens to contact their senators to get the issue put on the agenda at a TSA oversight hearing being held by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation this week.
Although the future of the scanners is uncertain either in the public eye or Capitol Hill, with advances in technology such as voice and facial recognition and portable DNA analyzers, the privacy debate is likely far from over.