Thursday, January 21, 2010

Invasion of the Body Scanners

When Richard Reid brought explosives onto an airliner in his shoes, authorities made millions of us remove our footwear for inspection before we boarded our flight.

Along the way, we were also required to carry our deodorant in a thimble and our toothpaste in an eye dropper.

Now comes Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab who smuggled explosives onto a flight in his underwear and failed in an attempt to blow up the airplane near Detroit.

Should we now assume that all dignity will be abandoned in the name of security and we will be ordered to fling our undergarments onto the conveyor belt?

Probably not. But you can bet your briefs that we will soon be subjected to virtual strip searches when the government begins to use body scanners to foil terrorist attacks.

Those scanners are coming to an airport near you. Soon.

Should we be concerned? Is our privacy being violated?

The Transportation Security Agency assures us that passengers walk through the machines fully clothed; the resulting image appears on a monitor in a separate room and conceals passenger faces and sensitive areas.

One report says that the resulting images are scrubbed by an "algorithm" so they look like a "chalk etching" or a "fuzzy photo negative."

"It covers up the dirty bits," James Carafano, a homeland security expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, told the Washington Post.

I seriously doubt that these scanners will "cover up the dirty bits."

Why? Because, if they do, that's exactly where the terrorists will conceal their weapons.

Even potential death in a fiery explosion can't quiet privacy concerns, however. One young woman I know wonders how long it will be before the scanned images begin to show up on Facebook.

Others wonder how much cash a body scan of a celebrity will bring from the gossip mongers in what would be the ultimate paparazzi shot. Can you say six figures?

The alternative is a full body pat-down in front of an airport full of gawkers. Or perhaps we can run reluctant passengers past a pack of bomb-sniffing dogs.

Some suggest we employ the security measures used by the Israelis. In a country surrounded by enemies, no flight out of Tel Aviv has ever been hijacked.

Lisa Beyer, former Jerusalem bureau chief for Time magazine, wrote about the Israeli security drill: "They ask a lot of questions, don't hesitate to take their time doing it, aren't embarrassed about profiling fliers and are quick to take matters to a higher level of scrutiny. The point of the long question sessions is to find inconsistencies in a terrorist's cover story, or to agitate him into a panic.

"Almost always, I'd be questioned by one agent, who would then leave to consult with a second agent, who would appear and ask many of the same questions. Then the two would compare notes, often with a supervisor, before the first agent would return with more questions."

That sounds like a procedure that would add hours to the screening process. How much of this is the American public prepared to tolerate?

We had better be prepared to accept all of it.

We are at war. And war requires sacrifices.

We face a ruthless and adaptable enemy that seems intent on targeting the innocent and defenseless. That makes security more complicated.

Can we learn from our mistakes and take measures that are effective without being even more Draconian?

We have little choice but to meet that challenge. That means not only the nation's security apparatus but the flying public as well.

The alternative is obvious and unpleasant.

Jon Adler, head of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, put it this way: "I don't consider the full-body scanners an invasion of privacy. I think a bomb detonating on a plane is the biggest invasion of privacy a person can experience."

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