Thursday, November 18, 2010

Invasion of the Body Scanners

The news these days is filled with stories of the new backscatter and millimeter-wave body-scanners in airport security checkpoints around the United States. Like many things in America these days, the public coverage of this story is very polarized and most of the public is somewhere in the middle. On the one hand, TSA insists that these screenings are necessary to deny terrorists access to commercial aircraft; on the other, many among the traveling public are upset for various reasons.

Some worry about the radiation dose, though that has been compared in the research to the dose one would get from about 20 minutes flying at cruising altitude just from the natural radiation present high in the atmosphere (TSA actually claims on their web site that it's equivalent to two minutes). This may or may not be a valid concern, but it's probably overblown.

Others are offended by the invasion of privacy inherent in having total strangers looking over what are effectively naked images of their bodies.

TSA says passengers have 3 choices:
  1. Undergo the body scan screening.
  2. Undergo what is referred to as an "enhanced pat-down", a procedure that in any other context would be regarded as sexual molestation.
  3. Don't fly.
Moreover, once the security process is started, the passenger is required to complete it, so choice #3 must be made ahead of the checkpoint.

The controversy over the use of these devices, ostensibly in the interest of public security, rages on in the media, but much of the flying public seems to actually be ok with it, convinced that the value in terms of improved traveler safety is worth the intrusion.

Others would say that in effect the terrorists win this round,because they have forced the greatest nation on earth to relinquish some of its rights and freedoms.

We in America are nothing if not adaptable. This controversy has only just begun. It will likely make its way into the court system, where it will take some years before a final decision is rendered. Meanwhile time goes on and Americans will get used to it.

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