In case you don't know what I'm talking about, the newest push in airport security is to install so-called body scanners into all the airports in America. This is coming in the wake of the failed bombing attempt of an airplane full of passengers on Christmas day. The Nigerian man who made the attempt apparently hid the bomb inside his underwear, where it was never detected. The belief is that it would have been seen if he had gone through a body scanner.
Of course, it would have been seen if they had strip-searched him too, but no one is calling for mandatory strip-searches at airports.
There are several problems I see with this body scanning technology. First, it invades the privacy of people traveling on planes. Here are some images of what the scans look like:
Now, I don't personally have a problem with TSA employees seeing ghostly images of my naked body. I'm not particularly concerned about someone seeing an image of my naughty parts. Everybody's got them, after all. But I recognize and am sensitive to the fact that a lot of people don't share that opinion. It's one thing to submit to a diagnostic imaging exam in a hospital, for the sake of your health, where your body might be revealed to medical personnel, but it is an entirely different thing to be forced to reveal your body to some TSA employee simply for the sake of getting on an airplane.
It doesn't take much of an imagination to consider how these privacy issues could create problems. First, how long will it take for the body-scan image of some movie star, model, or some other attractive media personality to end up on the Internet? We have been promised that these pictures are not stored, but that does not mean a bored TSA employee wouldn't be able to snap a photograph of the image before it left the screen. Second, what happens when a terrorist's bomb is missed by the body scanner, the plane blows up, and later the TSA insists that the bomb did not show up on the image? How can we be sure, since the images are not stored? Would such a situation then lead to the storing of these body images, all for the sake of national security? I don't mean to be creating a slippery slope, but I believe the slope is already there. When you take liberties with people's liberty (pun intended), you create future opportunities to take more liberties with people's liberty.
The second issue has to do with the safety of these machines. As I understand it, they use forms of low-frequency waves to obtain these body images. Presumably these low-energy waves are safe. But we thought cell phones were safe too until people started getting brain tumors. What will be the long-term effects on people who get frequent scans, like airline personnel and frequent fliers? The fact is, we can't answer that question right now.
The third issue I see with body scanners is the cost. I don't have numbers off hand, but I don't think anyone is under any delusions that it wouldn't cost hundreds of millions - probably billions - of dollars to install these machines in every airport in the country. Cutting edge technology ain't cheap, after all. And it will be taxpayers footing the bill. Does the benefit really offset the cost?
That last question leads to the final point. What is the real benefit of this technology? We haven't had a terrorist action on a U.S. airliner in nearly eight years. Furthermore, since 9/11 and the implementation of new security measures, we haven't had any terrorist actions on airplanes originating in the United States. Are the current safety measures really so inadequate that we need to install very expensive technology in all our airports? Did this latest terrorist plot occur because of inadequate technology, or inadequate use of that technology by inadequately trained personnel? The fact is, your plane is more likely to go down from mechanical failure or pilot error than from a terrorist plot. Is the decision to put body scanners in airports a reactionary decision based on fear rather than a rational decision based on evidence and reason?
When you take these things together - privacy concerns, potential health issues, cost, and questions about whether the scanners will actually make anything safer - it doesn't seem like this is the best decision to make for our country. It seems reactionary. It seems to be driven by unreasonable fears. It seems to be assuming that the intense security measures currently in place are somehow inadequate. It seems to ignore the fact that maybe we just need better-trained personnel implementing the current security measures more appropriately, 100% of the time.
One final word on TSA personnel. I don't personally know anyone who works for the TSA, but I am sure that TSA employees are good, decent people who generally know how to do their jobs. But I am skeptical that our current TSA personnel are really appropriately trained for their jobs. I am suspicious that many TSA personnel are not exactly high-level professionals. I don't have a lot of confidence that current TSA personnel can always be trusted with privacy issues. This is why the privacy issue, being championed by the ACLU, is so important. When someone is sick in the hospital, it is reasonable for them to be willing to sacrifice their privacy in the name of getting better. So they get X-rays and CT scans and MRI's, not to mention surgery and other procedures, even though all of those things reveal their bodies to medical professionals. But there are well-established laws in place governing the use of private medical information by medical professionals, in addition to ethical standards enforced by the various agencies that license medical professionals. To my knowledge, no such thing exists with the TSA. These people are not "professionals" in the same sense that a doctor or nurse is a professional. They do not have degrees in airport security, and they do not have licensing agencies that oversee their ethical standards. Furthermore, riding on an airplane does not seem to justify allowing some stranger who works at an airport to see your naughty parts.
This seems to me to be a reactionary decision that does not actually help anything. It simply costs a lot of money, will cost travelers a lot of time and hassle, and won't actually make traveling by airplane any safer from terrorism.