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The Naked Truth About Airport Scanners

Are privacy and security compatible?

Steve Chapman
January 7, 2010

To judge from the news accounts, Umar Abdulmutallab did everything to get himself caught except wear an Osama bin Laden T-shirt onto that Northwest Airlines flight Christmas Day. Yet the danger didn’t dawn on anyone until he allegedly set himself on fire while trying to detonate the explosives hidden in his underwear.

So the solution being proposed is the one we hear whenever the government fails: Give it greater power.

This is a common liberal impulse. The public schools aren’t educating students adequately? They need more money. The stimulus didn’t rev up job creation? Pass another one.

But when it comes to national security and law enforcement, the same tendency afflicts many conservatives. They generally think the federal government could screw up a three-car funeral, but they expect it to perform with flawless efficiency in finding murderous fanatics. And if it fails, they look to expand its authority to do the job it botched.

This is not true of everyone on the right. One of the ideas already in the works is screening all passengers with full-body scanners that let Transportation Security Administration agents see through clothing. Michael Chertoff, who was secretary of homeland security under President George W. Bush, has urged their expanded use, while ridiculing “privacy ideologues, for whom every security measure is unacceptable.”

But last year, a bill sponsored by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), banning the routine use of these machines easily passed the House, with the support of two out of every three GOP members. At the time, he warned, “The images offer a disturbingly accurate view of a person’s body underneath clothing, even allowing Transportation Security Administration officials to distinguish gender or see the sweat on a person’s back.”

That vote might come out a little differently today, but Chaffetz is not backing down. “I think that’s the challenge for our society, and there is no simple, easy answer: How do you find that right balance between protecting your personal privacy and yet the need to secure, say, an airplane,” he told public radio station KCPW in Salt Lake City. Yes, there are Republicans who think there are limits to how much privacy we should relinquish in pursuit of security.

Very few of us would be willing to get naked in front of a uniformed agent for the privilege of getting on a plane. But the scanners would have the same effect. How graphic are their images? British authorities barred the use of scanners for travelers under 18 for fear of violating child pornography laws.

Chertoff takes comfort that the officers inspecting the images would not know whose unclothed form they’re viewing and that the faces would be blurred. He seems to assume we can always trust every one of those government employees. (If I were an attractive woman, I’d have particularly strong doubts.)

It’s not reassuring that, as Chertoff notes, travelers could opt to get pat-downs instead. Any pat-down aimed at making sure you aren’t carrying explosive powders in your crotch is going to stir unpleasant memories of your last physical.

As it happens, the sacrifice involved in mass use of the full-body scanners, which TSA is already planning, would probably be futile. A Conservative member of the British parliament who previously worked for a company making scanners said that “in all the testing that we undertook, it was unlikely that it would have picked up the current explosive devices being used by al-Qaida”—including those used in the Christmas plot.

The more intractable problem is that terrorists are fiendishly capable of adaptation. If the scanners can find plastic explosives hidden in underwear—which is not guaranteed—the evildoers have another option that would foil these gadgets: hiding the bomb in a body cavity.

That’s exactly how one suicide bomber tried to assassinate the prince in charge of counterterrorism for Saudi Arabia. The charge went off, and the prince was lucky to survive. Today, full-body scanners. Tomorrow, cavity searches?

Preventing an Airbus from being blown up, of course, doesn’t mean preventing a terrorist from killing large numbers of people. If we secure commercial planes, jihadists can set off their bombs in sports venues, subway cars, shopping malls, or other crowded places.

So here’s the sad reality: If we insist on preserving what little remains of our privacy, we will remain at risk of a terrorist attack. And if we give it up? Ditto.

This column first appeared at Reason.com.

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