April 30, 2017

Airport Security Choices – Strip Search or Full Body Grope

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Aviation Safety

“… but if you touch my junk I’m gonna have you arrested…” has become an unlikely battle cry in the latest aspect of the war against terrorism. At San Diego’s airport, on November 15, 2010, John Tyner decided enough was enough. In a video segment he captured on his iPhone (see video below), Mr. Tyner refused to subject himself to the full body scanner, called by many a “strip search scanner”. A TSA employee described to Mr. Tyner a so-called “enhanced” pat down procedure. Throughout the exchange, Mr. Tyner sounds polite, reasonable, and very clear that he was not going to allow this government employee to invade his privacy in the most physical sense – using his hands and fingers. CBS News reports Mr. Tyner was refused access to his flight, and then threatened with a civil lawsuit should he leave the airport [1]. He left anyway and may now be facing a large fine.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u3lbnSLalWQ

Is Security Justification for Government Over-Reaching Invasion of Our Privates?

The TSA is in a tough spot. This relatively young agency is tasked with preventing terrorist attacks against our commercial aviation. The terrorists the TSA is up against are so extreme they’re not just willing, but eager to kill themselves in their zeal to kill innocent American civilians. Add to that the ever-increasing sophistication of their methods — box-cutters, shoe-bombs, liquid explosives, underwear bombs, ceramic weapons to evade metal detectors — the list seems to be limited only by the terrorists’ perverted imagination and zeal, which is to say, unlimited.

The government is using these very real challenges to justify ever more invasive security provisions. The public, alarmed and insecure, have gone along with scanning of all bags, full body and hand-held wand-type metal detectors, limitations on the amount of liquids in carry-on luggage, removal of laptops from cases, removal of shoes, etc.

Now, however, it seems the government may have crossed the line by putting scanners in place that virtually strip the scanned individual naked, with enhanced pat-downs using the front of TSA employees’ hands to very carefully feel women’s breasts, and the groin and crotch areas of all passengers who refuse the scan. What makes things even worse is that the various assurances mouthed by government representatives and websites are gradually withdrawn or simply found to be false.

A recent Gizmodo article [2] reports US marshals at an Orlando, Florida courthouse saved 35,000 scan images they were never supposed to save. The images, now leaked online, show how empty a government promise can be rendered by the fact that it is up to government employees to implement it. While the specific images in question are very low resolution, that is not the case with the newest scanners being deployed nationwide in airports.

Be it one bad apple or a large batch of rotten fruit, the problem stems from the fact that the technology allows images to be stored and even placed on a network. This is not simply a hack. This was part of the design requirements specified by the government: “documents that EPIC obtained show the agency’s procurement specifications require that the machines be capable of storing the images on USB drives. A 70-page document, classified as “sensitive security information,” says that in a test mode the scanner must “allow exporting of image data in real time” and provide a mechanism for “high-speed transfer of image data” over the network.” [3, 4].

Janet Napolitano, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, defends the new procedures in a November 15, 2010 Op-Ed piece in USA Today [5]. However, a member of a somewhat earlier administration, widely held to be one of the greatest American thinkers about government is quoted to have said “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety” [6].

It is true that Benjamin Franklin did not have to contend with insane suicide terrorists, yet that lack of immediate pressure may be exactly what kept his thinking on such matters clear. Terrorists win not merely by killing innocents. They win by forcing us to change our ways and give up, one bit at a time, the ideals on which our democracy was built. This seems to be the pattern of the TSA’s evolving procedures, eloquently described by Slate’s William Saletan in an April 2009 column on this matter – “Why should I care what the government says or depicts about its latest scanner image or blurring technology, when the technology and the depictions keep changing? The lesson of the escalating body scans, like the escalating pat-downs, is that TSA will do whatever it thinks it needs to do” [7].

What’s Next for TSA Screening?

No matter what limitations, if any, TSA ends up being forced to accept this time around, the terrorists will be quick to seize on those. If strip search screenings end up becoming the new primary screening tool, terrorists will use their body cavities to hide explosives. What then, Secretary Napolitano? Will the traveling public be forced to submit to a body cavity search as a requirement to fly on a commercial airliner? When terrorists begin inserting explosives surgically into their suicide bombers, will we be forced to submit to instant biopsies?

In the field of weapon research and development, the struggle between offensive munitions and defensive armoring is unending. For every new offense, a defense is soon developed. For every defense, a new offense is invented, designed to break through it. Similarly, no matter what technology  TSA begins employing, terrorists will develop new methods to avoid detection and carry out their nefarious deeds. Technological development is a never ending arms race.

The Solution – Concentrate on Homo Sapiens, Mark I

After a string of hijackings and airplane bombings in the 1970’s, Israel developed airport security processes and procedures that have proven remarkably effective, to the point that for decades no attack has succeeded in penetrating it. As is obvious to anyone who follows the news in the least, this is not for lack of enemies who would try.

In Startup Nation [8], Dan Senor and Saul Singer analyze Israel’s amazing success in the high-tech arena and what it derives from. Among others, the book describes a technique invented by Israelis and used by such e-commerce giants as eBay and Amazon. Says Syed Akbar Ali, “Major Internet businesses like e-Bay, Google and Amazon.com use Israeli software to detect fraudulent credit cards. The inventor’s philosophy was an oversimplistic ‘we separate the good guys from the bad guys’. Expanding further, the algorithm ran on the principle that good guys (people like you and me) leave electronic trails all over the place. Bookshop purchases, paying bills, supermarket payments all by credit cards are easily traceable. But when a credit card does not generate an electronic trail, then the lights start flashing. Bad guys like to be anonymous. That’s how the system detects them. And it is super fast” [9].

Taking this to the airport security arena, Israeli screeners are trained to do what American screeners are forbidden to do – profiling. In the US profiling has a very negative connotation, such as the bitter joke about minorities being pulled over by police officers for the offense of “driving while black”. However, when done correctly, profiling is highly effective.

Profiling is used in many aspects of our everyday life. When a potential employer looks up your credit history, he’s doing so because studies have shown that people who behave responsibly with their credit make more trust-worthy employees. When young drivers are charged higher premiums for car insurance, it’s because they’re much more likely than older drivers to engage in dangerous driving behaviors and give rise to expensive claims. We don’t complain about these types of profiling because they are race-neutral.

Profiling at airports can take advantage of the fact that statistically speaking, an elderly woman, or a mother traveling with a toddler, are much less likely to be suicide bombers than a single man in his early twenties. Add to that the fact that no matter the technology or technique, terrorists will never be able to avoid the fact that they are (at least biologically) human beings. If subjected to the right pointed questions by a screener, they are more likely to become flustered and nervous than an innocent passenger just trying to get home. Arguments to the contrary notwithstanding, the success of Israeli airport screening over decades proves that strip-search imaging technology and “enhanced” pat-downs that invade our privacy and our privates are not needed as primary tools to assure the safety of the traveling public.

References:

[1] http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2010/11/15/earlyshow/main7056229.shtml [2] http://gizmodo.com/5690749/these-are-the-first-100-leaked-body-scans [3] http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-501465_162-20022526-501465.html [4] http://epic.org/open_gov/foia/TSA_Procurement_Specs.pdf [5] http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/forum/2010-11-15-column15_ST1_N.htm [6] http://books.google.com/books?id=W2MFAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA270&lpg=PA270t#v=onepage&q&f=false [7] http://www.slate.com/id/2215687/ [8] http://search.barnesandnoble.com/Start-up-Nation/Dan-Senor/e/9780446541466 [9] http://syedsoutsidethebox.blogspot.com/2010/01/high-income-economy.html

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