By Paul Rosenzweig

It was bound to happen.  It does in every revolutionary change.  Eventually the conservatives try to regain the upper hand and win back the ground they lost when the change happened.  Historians call this reaction the “Thermidor” — named after the French month in which the counter-revolutionary conservatives tried to stop the French Revolution.

Today, it is the privacy groups who are playing the role of conservatives, attempting to roll back the tide of technological and social change.  They won’t like being called conservative, but that truly is what they are – reactionaries hoping to stop the tide of history, much like King Canute.   Today, they are fighting the social change generated by September 11 and the technological changes produced by American companies.

Their latest target is something known as “whole body imaging” – a technology that allows airport security to use millimeter wave scanners to spot concealed weapons before they get on a plane.  The Electronic Privacy and Information Center has begun a campaign to have these machines (which are already deployed in 19 airports for testing) banned.  

This privacy campaign is, to start with disingenuous.  It is based upon fear mongering that the machines will be able to see you “naked” and violate your personal space.  To support this charge, EPIC has re-released photographs that show the back of a man which they say are from this technology, and used those to try to generate hysteria.  But – and this is the important point – the pictures they are showing are from a different machine – a backscatter technology that is NOT in use. TSA is currently using a completely different millimeter wave technology.  It should tell you something when a “libertarian” campaign is bottomed on propaganda.

But let’s leave the campaign aside, and talk about the merits of the program.  TSA’s millimeter system uses technology to spot concealed weapons or other contraband.  Eventually, it may be completely automated to eliminate any human observation at all, as pattern recognition technology improves.  Even today, it its test phase, the millimeter wave scanner is 8 to 10 times quicker than a physical pat down and more effective in the end.  They are better than the traditional magnetometer because they can detect both metallic and non-metallic threats.  In short, bottom line – they make air travel safer.    Even Bruce Schneier, who is always critical of DHS, admits that the technology works pretty well.

Ahhhh … but what about the privacy invasion?  Think of all those TSA officers ogling nude pictures in the airport.   Well:

  • The images are physically separated from the passengers.  They are reviewed in a separate room by an officer who can’t see the passengers, while the officers with the passengers can’t see the image.
  • The images are anonymized so that nobody is personally identifiable.
  • If nothing is found, the images are automatically deleted – they reside on computers with zero storage capacity … that’s right zero.
  • Internal audit and review systems are in place to punish violators.

To be sure, there is the possibility of abuse.  Something could go wrong.  But that’s true of every technology.  Airplanes can be used as missiles.  Police officers sometimes shoot innocent bystanders (or even their spouse’s lover).  But where the certain security or mobility benefits outweigh the mostly hypothetical costs, the right answer is (as TSA has done) to set up rules to regulate behavior – not to wish the technology away.  I’m sure that EPIC fears that as the equipment gets cheaper, it will become more pervasive and harder to regulate.   That’s right – and that’s inevitable.  Only Thermidorian conservatives like EPIC try to stop change.

Paul Rosenzweig, the founder of Red Branch Law & Consulting, PLLC, formerly served as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Acting Assistant Secretary for International Affairs at the Department of Homeland Security.

  • Jeff Sural

    Great post and right on point. Unfortunately I see that these groups have gotten to Congress and there is an amendment that may be offered during the House’s passage of the TSA reauthorization bill that would further delay the use of this technology at the checkpoint. The amendment prevents the use of whole-body imagers as the “sole or primary use of screening”. TSA does not currently use WBI as the primary use of screening. However, considering the success of this technology to detect non-metallic items and its overwhelming acceptance by the public, this amendment could severely hamper efforts to move new technologies into the airport. What is even more frustrating is that Congress’ consistent criticism of TSA is its use of 1950s-era technology to screen passengers. Now that TSA has jumped to the 21st century it may be several misinformed Members of Congress who keep TSA in the 1950s.

  • Fred Freedom

    “The images are physically separated from the passengers. They are reviewed in a separate room by an officer who can’t see the passengers, while the officers with the passengers can’t see the image.”… This is totally FALSE. At Washington National, officers watching monitors RIGHT THERE saw the “scan” (and spotted my business cards in a pocket for further examination.) They were right there looking at screen and telling other TSA guy what they saw….