Airport body scanners: Necessary precaution or invasion of privacy?
Soon, when you travel by plane, you may be asked at the airport to step in front of a screening device called a full-body scanner. It looks like a metal cabinet with a screen, and it looks through your clothes for hidden weapons or explosives and shows a clear, somewhat graphic image of your body.
The Obama administration decided to increase the number of full-body scanners in airports around the country after a Nigerian man allegedly tried to blow up an airplane using explosives concealed in his underwear on Christmas Day.
Advocates of the devices say they are critical to stopping terrorists who seem to be developing more ingenious ways to slip weapons past security. Others oppose these scans as overly intrusive, comparing them to virtual strip searches.
Forty full-body scanners are already in use at 19 U.S. airports, and nearly 1,000 more are proposed to be installed by late 2011 to cover half of the nation’s airport checkpoints. While it is expected that full-body scanners will become the routine method of screening, passengers can choose between a scan, which takes about 15 seconds, or a full-body pat-down.
The Transportation Security Administration says strict privacy measures are used:
Screeners view the images on a monitor in a separate room from the passenger, whom they never see in person.
Cameras, cell phones and other picture-taking devices are banned in the monitor room.
The images, in which facial features are blurred, are deleted immediately after the scan is reviewed.
Functions that allow storage or transmission of images are disabled before installation of the scanners at airports.
Watchdog groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, believe that full-body scanners threaten personal privacy by producing images of virtually naked bodies and revealing embarrassing medical details such as adult diapers and colostomy bags.
Critics also question why the machines are built with the capability to store and transmit images if these functions are then disabled. The TSA says these functions are for testing and training purposes only. But the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a public interest group concerned with civil rights, believes the potential for abuse exists.
Security experts also point out that the current devices cannot detect a weapon hidden in a body cavity. They say the machines may also miss certain types of low-density powder explosives. Critics suggest that terrorists will always find a way to outsmart machines, and that money would be better spent on screening the backgrounds of potential terrorists instead of people’s bodies.
What is your right to privacy as you go through airport security? The Constitution does not even mention a right to privacy, but the Supreme Court has established in many cases that privacy is a fundamental right. In airport security cases, federal appeals courts have allowed the use of metal detectors and searches of passengers at any point after check-in.
Arguing against full-body scanners, civil liberties groups cite the Fourth Amendment, which protects the privacy of your body and your possessions. Specifically, it protects against “unreasonable searches and seizures.” But the courts say that the Fourth Amendment protection applies only if a person is in a situation where he or she has a “legitimate expectation of privacy.” That means the person expected to have some degree of privacy in what he or she was doing, and society would accept that expectation of privacy as reasonable. For instance, a person using a public restroom would expect to have privacy, and most people would agree that was reasonable. The question the courts may have to address about full-body scanners is whether a passenger at an airport has a legitimate expectation of privacy to be able to invoke Fourth Amendment protection.
So far, most of the flying public seems ready to accept full-body scanners as a necessary airport security precaution. A USA TODAY/Gallup poll of travelers taken two weeks after the “underwear bomber” incident showed 78 percent approved of the use of full-body scanners, and 84 percent believed the devices would stop terrorists from bringing explosives aboard planes.
What do you think?
Should full-body scans be routine at airport security screening? Do you think they will stop terrorists from bringing explosives aboard planes? Are they an invasion of privacy? Is a full-body scan more invasive than a full-body pat-down? Join the discussion, and tell us what you think!
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