Full body scanners and your “junk”

The video has been bandied about on US news programmes and made the rounds on the internet, but it is perhaps not that obvious to people the significance of it all. The video I am talking about, of course, involves one less-than-impressed individual who, after agreeing to a full body pat down at a US airport, uttered the now famous line “…if you touch my junk, I’m going to have you arrested.”

So, why the fuss? Aren’t pat downs generally acceptable?

The US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) recently introduced new security procedures at its airports which include requiring all passengers to submit to a full body scan or, if they elect not to go through the invasive scanner, an intimate full body pat down.

The full body scanners that have been employed by the TSA essentially portray a graphic nude image of the individual subject of the scan to those TSA officers observing. Should you be required to pass through these scanners, you are able to opt out, but beware that the alternative is by no means less invasive – a full body pat down, including of your “junk”, will ensue.

It seems quite obvious to this author that these procedures are not only humiliating and a complete violation of the right to privacy, but they are also completely inadequate. Would we accept such violations of our privacy had there never been an underwear bomber? I submit that we would not.

And, doesn’t it seem a little bit strange that all of the measures employed so far in trying to deal with the threat of airline terrorism have been implemented only after a specific attempt has been made and only to prevent similar attacks?

Let’s look at the cases. Firstly, we all need to throw away liquids over a certain amount before we enter the security check point at all airports. This protective measure followed the foiled 2006 transatlantic bomb plot. Second, I now wear slip-on shoes to airports to expedite the obligatory removal of shoes at airports, a most inconvenient security measure that was implemented thanks to the shoe bomber. Now, we have the junk pat down, courtesy of the underwear bomber.

Is it just me or are we a touch slow in reacting to these threats? Probably. And, are those who seek to perpetrate these acts slipping through with new and more innovative methods of beating security? Yes, definitely.

What seems abundantly clear to me from all of this is that we are neither innovative in the same way as those seeking to bring down airliners nor are we responding to them in an effective manner. What we are doing, however, is acting exclusively in response to terrorist attempts and only to the extent that we are aiming to prevent a more successful repeat of the same attack. And violating the right to privacy in the process.

I don’t believe that anyone would argue that there is not a legitimate aim in stopping acts of terrorism. However, what appears to be in dispute in this entire discussion is whether or not the methods employed in fighting airline terrorism are necessary in the pursuit of that legitimate aim. It is the firm view of this author that revealing and embarrassing full body scans, with a humiliating pat down alternative, is not at all necessary. Allow me to explain why.

First of all, the scanning technology used is unlikely to detect 80 grams of PETN explosives, 100 grams of which could destroy a car.(1) Allow one or two of these cases to slip through and you have a disaster on your hands. It seems a logical conclusion then that if the technology is ineffective, it cannot possibly be necessary.

Martin Scheinin, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights while countering terrorism, also argues that as such scanning and pat down procedures will inevitably slow down airport security check points, it will lead to a great increase in racial and religious profiling.

Finally, there is an obvious and great element of humiliation involved in this sort of procedure. There are also certain medical conditions that only magnify the level of humiliation involved, raising the question of whether such measures, in the right circumstances, could also amount to degrading treatment (see report of MSNBC http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/40291856/ns/travel-news/).

We should not stand for this sort of violation of privacy, regardless of how scared we might be at the threat of terrorism. As shown above, the measures adopted by the TSA, along with almost every other airline authority worldwide, have come in response to attempted attacks, a touch too late for my taste. If we continue to act only in response to failed attacks, one will actually succeed, and in the meantime your junk will have been on numerous airport security screens. And, if the new security methods adopted by the TSA are not even that likely to succeed in stopping an attack, why are the likes of President Obama suggesting that they are necessary? And, more importantly, why are we tolerating them?

(1) http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/dec/27/petn-pentaerythritol-trinitrate-explosive

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