Friday, November 26, 2010

TSA Use Of Advanced Imaging Technology and Pat-Downs

Unless you have been living under a rock, you have probably read, seen and/or heard several reports about the TSA's new "naked body scanners" and enhanced pat-down procedures.

Millimeter wave technology bounces electromagnetic waves off the body to create a black and white three-dimensional image. Backscatter technology projects X-ray beams over the body to create a reflection of the body displayed on the monitor.
This week, USA Today published an opinion piece written by TSA Administrator John Pistole. Pistole's article was titled "Why we need TSA's security measures", and included the official explanation for the TSA's new enhanced security screening procedures. In his article, Pistole claimed that travelers "now have the option" of going through the Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) machines. This is a very strange choice of words, because if you choose to opt out of a full-body scanner, or if you set off an alarm of one of the machines, you will undergo a very invasive pat-down. Pistole also said that the AIT machines will eventually replace the metal detectors, which have been in place since the 1960s.

In this post I have compiled some highlights from the national debate on the TSA's new security procedures. I focus on several of the main questions that are being asked and answered in the news.

What Can the TSA see when you submit to the AIT machines?

What the TSA sees when you submit to the AIT machines
This image of an adult man was taken using a Rapiscan Secure 1000 backscatter X-ray scanner (Credit: John Wild (

Backscatter technology produces an image that resembles a chalk etching. This image was taken from the TSA web site.

Millimeter wave technology produces an image that resembles a fuzzy photo negative. This image was taken from the TSA web site.
The Rapiscan Secure 1000 is one of the models in use at airports and the manufacturer says that it can detect organic and inorganic threats, metals and non-metallic objects such as liquids, ceramics, plastic explosives, narcotics, contraband, and currency.

In a speech about the NATO summit, President Obama implied that the AIT machines are a necessary response to the threat posed by the underwear bomber on Christmas day 2009. He said, "Since the explosive device that was on Mr. Abdulmutallab was not detected by ordinary metal detectors, it has meant that TSA has tried to adapt to make sure that passengers on planes are safe."

Congressman Rush Holt (D-NJ), chairman of the Congressional Biomedical Caucus, wrote an open letter to the TSA in which he strongly objects to the AIT machines because they are ineffective and potentially dangerous. In his letter, Holt quoted the Government Accountability Office (GAO) which said, “it remains unclear whether the AIT would have been able to detect the weapon Mr. Abdulmutallab used in his attempted attack based on the preliminary TSA information we have received.”

How harmful are the scans and pat-downs?

The TSA claims that the AIT machines are safe, efficient, and protect passenger privacy. They have been independently evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institute for Standards and Technology, and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, which have all affirmed their safety. According to the RapidScan manufacturer's Frequently Asked Questions regarding Health and Safety, a person receives the same amount of radiation exposure from one inspection that they would receive in two minutes of a typical commercial aviation flight.

This claim about radiation exposure has been debated by several scientists. In his previously mentioned letter to the TSA, Congressman Rush Holt (D-NJ) describes the testimony of Dr. David Brenner of Columbia University on the potential health effects of the AIT machines. Dr. Brenner explained in his briefing that the AIT machines deliver to the scalp “20 times the average dose that is typically quoted by TSA and throughout the industry.” According to Dr. Brenner, excessive x-ray exposure on the top of the head can act as a significant cancer rate multiplier.

I personally am not very concerned about the health hazards related to the radiation exposure, but I am concerned about the psychological impact that these new screening procedures have on some passengers. Many children and victims of rape or sexual assault will be traumatized when they are forced to have strangers touching them and seeing images of their body. Many passengers have special needs and special circumstances that should exempt them from these invasive procedures.

TSA made this young boy take off his shirt at Salt Lake International Airport
An article in the Christian Science Monitor explains the impact of the TSA procedures on victims of sexual abuse. The experience “can be extremely re-traumatizing to someone who has already experienced an invasion of their privacy and their body,” says Amy Menna, a counselor and professor at the University of South Florida who has a decade’s experience researching and treating rape survivors. “Any type of violation of physical boundaries can set back a rape survivor in their treatment, in their therapy, in their recovery,” says Menna.

Deborah Petersen is a features editor for the San Jose Mercury News who has a graduate degree is in psychology, and her specialty was post-traumatic stress disorder. She described her encounter with the TSA in a recent article and how it made her concern about the affect of these procedures on victims of sexual abuse. She used to counsel survivors of sexual abuse, and she explained that experiencing abuse, predictably, produces distrust and an aversion to surprises, especially when survivors are thrust into situations that might remind them of their abuse.

Humorist Dave Barry was interviewed on NPR about his experience with the new TSA screening process. He was told by the TSA that he has a "blurred groin" and must have a pat-down inspection. He explained, "My wife doesn't have any complaints about my groin - that I know of." Dave Barry's interview on NPR made light of the situation, but this is no laughing matter for people who actually have unusual genitalia or abnormal breasts.

The National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) has expressed concern about the violation of the civil rights of transgender travelers. Many people are born with ambiguous genitalia and some people choose to change or alter their genitalia and/or breasts. These people can suffer a significant trauma when they submit to be processed in the AIT machines and their images appear different from other passengers. This invariably results in very uncomfortable discussions.

Can TSA employees be trusted to behave legally and ethically?

Obviously, most TSA employees do their best to be honest and professional and I believe that most of them are just trying to do their job and protect the public from security threats. I am convinced that most employees of the TSA believe that they are enforcing policies that are reasonable and necessary. When you search for cases of abuse, you won't find many. When you consider that an average of over 2 million passengers fly in the US every day, it's not surprising that a few feel that they have been treated unfairly. There are obvious cases where TSA employees lack sensitivity and abuse their position of authority. Most of these cases seem to involve belligerent and defiant passengers who make a scene and try to attract the attention of everybody around them.

Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano wrote an article that was published in USA Today's Opinion Column. Napolitano claims that all images generated by AIT machines are viewed in a walled-off location that is not visible to the public and the officer assisting the passenger never sees the image. She further explains that the officer viewing the image never interacts with the passenger.

In her article, Napolitano said, "the imaging technology that we use cannot store, export, print or transmit images". TSA spokesman, Greg Soule also told CBS News that the AIT machines are "sent to the airports without the ability to save, transmit or print the images" and then contradicts himself in the next sentence by explaining that "the images are examined by a security officer in a remote location, and, once the image is cleared, they're deleted." Most computer users know that the ability to transmit the images is required to view the images in a remote part of the airport.

Why should we trust our government when they say that the AIT images will not be stored? The Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a Freedom Of Information Act request for images from an AIT machine that were stored. William Bordley, an associate general counsel with the U.S. Marshals Service, acknowledged in response to the FOIA request that "approximately 35,314 images ... have been stored on the Brijot Gen2 machine" used in the Orlando, Fla. federal courthouse. Gozmodo posted samples of these images and fortunately for those who walked through the scanner in Florida last year, this AIT machine used the less revealing imaging technique.

In 2008, when Janet Napolitano was governor of Arizona, she assured state lawmakers that proposed freeway speed cameras would only photograph lawbreakers. Only after the wildly unpopular machines doled out millions in tickets did the truth emerge that the robotic devices recorded the movements of all drivers, 24 hours a day, and stored the images for 90 days.

Here Are a Collection Of Video Reports Of TSA Misconduct

There are several news reports that make it clear that TSA employees do not always act in a professional and respectful manner. One TSA employee named Rolando Negrin was arrested after he "lost his mind" and attacked a colleague who repeatedly made fun of his small penis. Negrin had been embarrassed and enraged by constant ribbing from his colleagues after a training session with an AIT machine.

The TSA claims that pat-downs are conducted by same-gender officers, who have received specific training on how to conduct pat-downs in a "professional and respectful manner". The TSA seems to do a fair job of evaluating employees and they have a stated policy of conducting thorough background checks to prevent criminals from entering service. A few TSA employees have managed to slip through the background checks and a few have been charged with various sex crimes. The Boston Herald reported that TSA screener Sean Shanahan, was charged with statutory enticing a minor and assault and battery. A TSA employee named Randall Scott Kingkidnapped and sexually assaulted a woman. A WSBTV report reveals that King had previously been convicted of misdemeanor harassment and stalking.

Who benefits from the new security procedures?

The most obvious beneficiaries of the new security procedures are the manufacturers of the AIT systems. According to the Washington Examiner, L-3 Communications has a TSA contract worth $165 million and Rapiscan has a contract worth $173 million. According to a Washington Times Editorial, Deepak Chopra is the chief executive of OSI Systems Inc and Rapiscan Systems is a subsidiary of OSI. Mr. Chopra and his executive vice presidents, Alan I. Edrick and Ajay Mehra, each cut separate checks to Mr. Obama's presidential campaign for the maximum legal amount on Oct. 24, 2008. Chopra was one of the corporate leaders who Obama invited on his extravagant trip to India earlier this month.

Michael Chertoff, former Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security formed a security advisory firm, The Chertoff Group, which advises corporate and government clients on security and risk management issues. The Chertoff Group was hired by RapidScan in 2009.

After printer cartridges allegedly loaded with PETN explosives were found onboard cargo planes from Yemen to the United States, Chertoff warned us that the nation needed stronger security procedures. Chertoff repeated his talking points on ABC News's "World News Tonight", Fox News' "Fox and Friends", CNBC's "Squawk Box" and Bloomberg TV.

The Hill published an article that lists several of the lobbyists and elected officials who have benefited from the TSA policy. L-3 has spent more than $1.4 million on lobbying since 2004 and Rapiscan has spent close to $3.6 million on lobbying since 2007, according to records.

Linda Hall Daschle, a former administrator for the Federal Aviation Administration and wife of ex-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), is one of L-3’s best-connected lobbyists. Daschle has earned $100,000 in lobbying fees so far this year working on “matters related to advanced imaging technology” — body scanners — among other air-travel issues, according to lobbying disclosure documents.

The Center for Responsive Politics released a report that found eight members of Congress who owned at least $2,000 worth of stock in L-3 Communications. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) owns $500,000 to $1 million worth of stock in L-3. Michael Castle (R-Del.) and Michael McCaul (R-Texas) both disclosed possessing between $16,002 and $65,000 worth of L-3 stock. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.) is listed as having the next most valuable holdings in L-3 Communications, worth between $15,001 and $50,000.

How does the general public feel about the AIT machines and pat-downs?

The mainstream media seems obsessed with the public backlash against the new procedures, but several polls indicate that most Americans are supportive of the new security procedures. In a Washington Post-ABC News poll, 68% of respondents said they think it is more important for the federal government to investigate possible terrorist threats, even if that intrudes on personal privacy and 64% support the use of the new scanners. Americans mostly seem willing to voluntarily forfeit some of their rights because they believe this provides them greater protection.

There was very little public outrage when the USA Patriot Act was passed shortly after 9/11 terrorist attacks. Americans didn't seem to care that our government decided that it was OK for law enforcement to enter people’s homes, search through their private property, and then leave without even informing the inhabitants that their property had been searched. Few objected when it was determined that the government could send someone a national security letter demanding the disclosure of certain documents or information without probable cause, without judicial oversight, and with a gag order that prohibits the recipient of such a letter from discussing it, let alone challenging it in court. There was quite a bit of outrage when we discovered that the Bush administration decided that waterboarding was a legitimate interrogation technique, but few Americans did anything about it.

I imagine that most Americans presumed that none of this would ever apply to them. Most people probably assume that since they are law abiding citizens, they are not suspected of being terrorists and nobody would want to search their homes or violate their privacy. The media rarely advises the public about human rights violations when the government appears to be acting in the best interest of the majority. For some reason, most Americans seem content to allow the government to violate the rights of a few as long as they are not aware that they are having their rights violated. It even seems that the general population does not want to hear about the abuses and they tend to turn to another channel to avoid dealing with the guilt involved in knowing about the abuses. This is apparently the American way.

Do you feel that our Government has gone too far?

Last time I checked, US citizens still have a constitutional right to freedom of passage without unreasonable search and seizure. The TSA seems to know this and their policy seems to be geared around encouraging passengers to voluntarily give up their rights and submit to one of their preferred screening "options". I would argue that the TSA is using intimidation and fear to achieve their unreasonable searches. I admire their strategy of providing the illusion of "choice" to convince passengers to choose one method of violating their rights verses another. This seems to be a very effective tool because people like to believe that they have some choices in life. I am mostly just disappointed that Americans don't stand up for their rights more.

I was very encouraged to read Matt Kernan's blog post about his recent encounter with the TSA. Even though Kernan was selected for additional screening, he managed to get through security without submitting to an AIT machine or a pat-down. He politely said to the TSA agents and supervisors, “I understand what the pat-down entails, but I wanted to let you know that I do not give you permission to touch my genitals or the surrounding area. If you do, I will consider it assault.”

After repeating his request to multiple TSA agents and a asked for a supervisor. He took out his iPhone, activated the voice recorder, and said, “Per my constitutional rights, I am not allowed to be detained without reasonable cause for arrest." He then asked, "Now, am I free to go?”

The TSA called in the Airport Police Department and Kernan repeated his attempt to reason with the authorities. “Since you are actual police officers and not simply TSA, I am sure you have had much more training on my rights as a U.S. citizen, so you understand what is at stake here." And then he asked again, "So, am I free to go? Or am I being detained?” One of the officers answered, “You aren’t being detained, but you can’t go through there.” Pointing to the exit of the customs area.

Kernan asked the police officers if they would arrest him if he continued through the metal detector. The police explained that he was in an area within the jurisdiction of the TSA, and they are only authorized to assist the TSA.

Kernan asked for the TSA supervisor and explained, “The police have explained to me that it is your call on whether or not I am being detained. If I walked through that metal detector right now, you would have to ask them to arrest me in order for them to do anything.”

The TSA supervisor tried to defer responsibility to the officers, and they explained to him they they are only acting on his behalf. It is his jurisdiction. It is policy. They won’t detain me unless he tells them to.

Kernan asked, ”So, if I were to get up, walk through the metal detector, and not have it go off, would you still have them arrest me?”

The TSA supervisor answers, “I can’t answer that question. That is no longer an option because you were selected for the Backscatter.”

The TSA supervisor then called in “The Federal Security Director” who explained,
“Here’s what we’re going to do. I’m going to escort you out of the terminal to the public area. You are to stay with me at all times. Do you understand?”

Kernan asked, “Will I be touched?”

The Federal Security Director answered, “I can’t guarantee that, but I am going to escort you out.”

Kernan answered, “OK. I will do this. But I will restate that I still do not give you permission to touch my genitals or the surrounding area. If you do, I will still consider it assault.”

The Federal Security Director answered, “I understand.” and Kernan was escorted through a staff entrance, down a hallway and out to the baggage claim area. By the end of his journey, there were 13 TSA officials and 2 uniformed police officers forming a circle around around him.

By politely stating his rights, recording the audio of his encounter and repeatedly asking if he was being detained, Kernan managed to get through without submitting to a pat-down or an AIT machine. He was detained for 2.5 hours, but he accomplished something that most passengers have not. Kernan could easily have been arrested if he made any mistakes, and he went to great lengths to avoid conflict.

If you object to the use of the AIT machines and invasive pat-down techniques, stand up for your rights, politely object to the invasive screening procedures, and write your member of Congress and ask them to cosponsor Ron Paul's TSA bill (HR 6416)!

Ron Paul introduces the American Traveler Dignity Act (HR 6416)

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