How do we value collective security versus personal safety and privacy? Lately, there has been increasing noise regarding the new body scanners and more invasive patdowns conducted by the TSA, to the point where there is now a call for a National Opt-Out Day on November 24, the busiest air travel day of the year.
I have personal concerns regarding both the safety of these new scanners and the security of the images generated by them. In particular, the backscatter scans produce radiation that, due to its design, may well significantly increase the risk for skin and breast cancers (more info here). Recently, I chose my airport security line carefully in order to avoid one of these new scanners.
But my behavior begs the real question. How much of our personal safety and privacy are we willing to give up for greater security? Moreover, what if we only gain a small amount of real security, but gain a lot of perceived security? This is an important question, because the bulk of the security changes instituted at airport checkpoints in the past decade are carefully orchestrated theater.
Here’s what I mean. After September, 2001, the public had a crisis of confidence in the safety of commercial air travel. In order to restore that confidence, something visible had to be done. On the other hand, it couldn’t be so onerous that business travelers would avoid flying due to the hassle. You can see how the needle has moved back and forth since then, as particular threats bubble up.
- After Richard Reid, we had to remove our shoes and run them through the x-ray machines. This has been less consistently enforced in the past few years, though it still is most common.
- After the explosives mixing plot in London was thwarted, we were forbidden from bringing liquids. Then we were allowed to bring liquids in vessels of up to three ounces, with all of them able to fit in a quart bag, per person. Officially, this policy remains in place. In practice, it’s no longer being enforced unless it’s violated egregiously.
If we recognize that it’s theater, the increase in risk that arises from the latest scanners is especially onerous. It’s a cost without a corresponding benefit. The time hassle is one thing, but increased health risks are another thing altogether.
So how much of your safety and privacy are you willing to give up for security theater? What about for real security? Are you OK with a shadow organization collecting reams of personal information on you as a means of profiling potential terrorists? What would prevent that information from later being used in more Orwellian ways?
Where should we set the boundaries?
Update: Alternet has more information on John Tyner, who is under investigation for refusing to be scanned. He has been threatened with a fine for leaving the premises, despite the fact that he left specifically because he was escorted off by TSA agents. Something to consider the next time you travel, I guess.
- “Porno-scanners”: At last, the public objects (salon.com)
- “Say “I Opt Out” of Airport Scanners on National Opt Out Day, November 24″ and related posts (pogowasright.org)
- TSA Backlash week [Thoughts from Kansas] (scienceblogs.com)
- Don’t Forget To Check Your Liberties Along With Your Luggage (newageofpolitics.com)