New software may redeem privacy at airports

Over the last year or so, airport security has become considerably more stringent. Whole body scanners, which the U.S. Transportation Security Agency began implementing in 2009, have become a standard component of the airport security system since concealing weapons beneath clothing became a pressing concern.

Despite the threat of travelers carrying clandestine weapons, passengers have expressed concerns over the invasiveness of this measure.

Barry Steinhardt, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Technology and Liberty projects, said in a 2008 ACLU statement that, "Body scanners produce graphic images of travelers' bodies and are an assault on their essential dignity."

The Electronic Privacy Information Center also filed a lawsuit against the TSA, writing in last month’s reply brief that, “The TSA has acted outside of its regulatory authority and with profound disregard for the statutory and constitutional rights of air travelers.”

The TSA justifies the use of this persnickety technology on the grounds that it is a preventative measure against potential terrorist attacks, an advantage that is apparently well worth violating the privacy of air passengers.

However, the overall benefit doesn’t necessarily justify the exorbitant cost. Rapiscan, the company that manufactures the machines, says that they ring up at about $150,000 to $180,000 each. Since body scanners are essentially the airport’s last line of defense, that money is probably better spent acquiring intelligence to prevent attacks from getting to the airport in the first place; that way, the TSA can also circumvent the degradation of being exposed to complete strangers.

Recently, TSA announced in a press release that they are testing new software that provides a less detailed image but still highlights areas that raise suspicion.

Since the expensive scanners are already in place, the TSA would be better served to integrate this new technological development into the current system for the sake of restoring individual privacy.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who is part of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said in a news release, “We have the technology that will eliminate the need for American air travelers to choose between their privacy and security when they choose to fly.”

This program, instead of providing a detailed, revealing image, shows a generic outline of a person; if they are carrying something, a box will indicate the area of interest. Only passengers who arouse suspicion will receive the much-contested pat down.

It seems obvious that this less obtrusive, and quite frankly, more respectful system ought to replace the current one.

However, it would be foolish and counterproductive to ensuring the safety of passengers to immediately switch over without eradicating all the potential loopholes and bugs in the system.

But even if problems with the new technology do arise, the TSA needs to put its best efforts into making it work for the sake of our basic rights as American citizens and, for that matter, as human beings.

No one deserves to be violated like that.

Julie can be reached at julianna.roberts@asu.edu


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