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Trevor Stone's Journal
Those who can, do. The rest hyperlink.
Underreported Privacy Features 
27th-Nov-2010 11:12 pm
transparent ribbon for government accoun
As you may have noticed, people on the Internet are upset about new TSA security measures. Broadly, there seem to be three objections:
1: "I don't want to be exposed to radiation."
2: "I don't want government employees to see me naked."
3: "I don't want government employees to touch me."

In general, these are all valid concerns, but to me the current volume and hyperbole seem overblown. I have yet to fly with them in place, though, so I don't want to make any firm claims. However, in preparation for my trip to New York City on Monday, I found the TSA's Advanced Imaging Technology FAQ:
Q. What has TSA done to protect my privacy?
A. TSA has implemented strict measures to protect passenger privacy, which is ensured through the anonymity of the image. A remotely located officer views the image and does not see the passenger, and the officer assisting the passenger cannot view the image. The image cannot be stored, transmitted or printed, and is deleted immediately once viewed. Additionally, there is a privacy algorithm applied to blur the image.
So objection #2 is pretty silly: the person who "sees you naked" doesn't also get to see the fully-clothed face-in-tact you. So arguably they'll be looking at naked pictures, but they'll have no way to know it's you. Even if the images aren't deleted, there's no record of who went through which security line when, so it's just an anonymous human body. And after several hours a day of looking at "naked" images, these screeners are not going to be in any way aroused by the fuzzy monochrome body parts of American travelers. There's far higher quality naked pictures of more attractive people doing sexually suggestive things available for free on the Internet.

Another nugget from the FAQ in regards to concern #1:
Backscatter technology projects an ionizing X-ray beam over the body surface at high speed. The reflection, or “backscatter,” of the beam is detected, digitized and displayed on a monitor. Each full body scan produces less than 10 microREM of emission, the equivalent to the exposure each person receives in about 2 minutes of airplane flight at altitude. …
Millimeter wave technology bounces harmless electromagnetic waves off of the human body to create a black and white image. It is safe, and the energy emitted by millimeter wave technology is thousands of times less than what is permitted for a cell phone.
So yes, you receive some harmful X-ray radiation while being scanned. But it's orders of magnitude less than the radiation you receive by actually flying on the plane you're about to board. Radiation exposure is a valid concern and you wouldn't want to walk through one of these several times a day, but avoiding the scan before you get on a plane is like refusing a breath mint after Thanksgiving dinner because you're worried about its calories.

The third objection is a touchy subject. elusis has pointed out that women, minorities, and transgendered people have been uncomfortable with airport pat-downs for years, but it's a big deal now because suddenly an able-bodied cisgender white man is the one who was complaining about the government touching their dicks. I can sympathize with folks with an adverse reaction to people touching them, but I wonder what they do when they're sitting in a window seat and need to go to the bathroom, surfing over the laps of the two people in their row and sliding past the flight attendants. And it's not like pat-downs are a new thing, they're just doing a more thorough job.

I'm not trying to be a TSA apologist, I'm just trying to keep things in proportion. The whole airport ritual is absurdist security theater worthy of ridicule by Franz Kafka. That they could say "I'm sorry sir, but that's too much toothpaste" is an illustration that it's a human computer with a rather inelegant program. They've got Eric Schmidt's vision backwards. He says "Computers will clearly handle the things we aren’t good at, and we will handle the things computers clearly aren’t good at." But the TSA has humans implementing strict sets of rules (which computers are great at) and not making judgement calls about social situations (which computers are bad at).

I hope this episode will generate enough momentum to change the American approach to airport screening so that it's both more efficient and more secure. But it feels more like a hangover from all the tea partying, which quickly went from "Giving billions of dollars to major banks is unjust!" to "Let's bring a Republican majority back to Washington!"

DIA has over twice as many metal detectors as imaging scanners, so it should be possible to pick which screening technology you get. I might ask for a grope, just to see how intimate it really is.
Comments 
28th-Nov-2010 08:37 am (UTC)
Regarding objection 1, there is this, which addresses the "amount of radiation" argument among other things.

but I wonder what they do when they're sitting in a window seat and need to go to the bathroom, surfing over the laps of the two people in their row and sliding past the flight attendants.

Whoa. Dude. Apples and oranges.

DIA has over twice as many metal detectors as imaging scanners, so it should be possible to pick which screening technology you get.

From what I hear, you don't even get to know, let alone pick.

And what's got me pissed isn't just those things -- it's the fact that anyone who doesn't play the game is apparently considered a criminal.
28th-Nov-2010 08:00 pm (UTC)
Regarding objection 1, there is this, which addresses the "amount of radiation" argument among other things.

It seems the most concrete thing that article says is that the effective dose in skin and external organs is higher, but it sounds like it brings it to roughly the same order of radiation as a flight. The point about children absorbing more is also a good one -- it would be good to see a study on the machines that's specific to children.

From what I hear, you don't even get to know, let alone pick.

This is probably specific to DIA's layout: you can look down on two of three security lines from a mezzanine on the ticketing floor, so you should be able to identify where the special machines are.

anyone who doesn't play the game is apparently considered a criminal.

From the article linked by the second piece:
TSA is warning that any would-be commercial airline passenger who enters an airport checkpoint and then refuses to undergo the method of inspection designated by TSA will not be allowed to fly and also will not be permitted to simply leave the airport. That person will have to remain on the premises to be questioned by the TSA and possibly by local law enforcement. Anyone refusing faces fines up to $11,000 and possible arrest.
This actually sounds fairly reasonable. If someone knows there's a security checkpoint, starts to go through it, and then decides not to based on the specific screening techniques, suspicion is probably warranted. And if the questioning shows that the person just got freaked out about people touching him, there shouldn't be any fines or charges. The security goal of an airport checkpoint is to figure out who to take a closer look at, and this set of people seem worth a second look.
28th-Nov-2010 10:38 pm (UTC)
Interestingly enough, I object, but not for any of those reasons; I don't think the new scans/searches make us any safer.
The small amount of explosive needed to rupture a cabin and (maybe) cause a plane to crash can be carried -in- the body and removed when on board. No 9/11 damage, sure, but if the object is terror, then wholly effective.

Just as failed bombings are effective, when the media hypes up 'how bad it could have been if (whatever) had worked!'.
28th-Nov-2010 10:43 pm (UTC)
Very little the TSA does actually makes us safer. I'm not arguing that the new measures are a good idea, just that there are more important reasons than what everybody's talking about. I'm encouraging folks to have a discussion about the security merits and demerits of TSA policies, not whether their genitals and government employees occur in the same thought.
30th-Nov-2010 04:11 am (UTC)
Ah, after penis number 5, it's just not fun any more. While your fun parts are very important to you, the TSA person isn't all that thrilled about 'touching your junk' either, it's their job.
30th-Nov-2010 07:51 am (UTC)
Tonight, on Out of Context Theatre: "After penis number 5, it's just not fun any more."

sorry
29th-Nov-2010 02:29 am (UTC)
The current concerns may be overblown, but predictably so. The TSA has mishandled their publicity about as badly as they can.

Part of it is that we're not used to having our persons searched without probable cause or very explicit consent, and we're not yet accustomed to granting consent in the subtle ways that we do to the TSA. Just, what, 10 years ago, three questions were enough to fly? I'm not yet used to thinking that by the time I've traveled to the security checkpoint I've crossed some threshold and thereby consented to a search.

So for people to think that searches are being 'forced' on them makes sense. And now that the procedures are well out of most peoples' comfort zones, outrage is quite a natural response: "With neither probable cause nor my consent, this organization dares to do things to me that I was saving for my wedding night?" With no obvious sense of having given consent, and without having given probable cause, the search seems illegal, so why should you be anything but hostile, and why on earth should you be detained?

The TSA might be able to save face on this if they would have their ID checkers deliver a message like the following, "Great. Now from here you may continue to the security checkpoint, and in so doing you consent to compulsory searches, or you may go that way to the exit.". If instead of signs they waste your time by having a person say it to you, yes it's a waste, but some 'constitutional theater' might stanch our loss of faith in (and civility toward) them.

Frankly, I feel that the searches are not unlike requiring motorists be insured. It's a due diligence obligation imposed by the government for the common good. Forgetting momentarily whether it meets specific objectives well, that's the how and why of it. The problem with publicizing that view is that it would create a lot of cognitive dissonance with people who have forgotten that driving and flying are not actually enshrined as rights. For that reason it might be off-message federally even if it would help the TSA overall.

The TSA is being too gingerly about asserting its legal legitimacy at the same time as it wastes our time and money on techniques of dubious efficacy. Not to mention that it has a propensity for Orwellian-sounding circular doubletalk. Nor that its origin story smells a little too much like wartime emergency powers, which have a bad reputation for ethics and constitutionality.
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