When does airport security become a violation of privacy?
Nov. 17, 2010
If you’re flying anywhere this holiday season, you’re bound to notice that airport security is tighter than ever.
You may have to wait in a long line to get to your gate. You’ll probably be asked to show your ID multiple times. And depending on what airport you find yourself in, you may be asked to go through a full-body scanner.
Those scanners have been the target of passengers’ ire since they were first announced last winter. Some travelers, and consumer advocates, feel that the X-rays from the scanners are potentially dangerous, especially for frequent fliers. They also feel the scanners are a violation of passengers’ privacy.
It wasn’t always like this.
|Though your right to privacy is not spelled out in the Constitution, the Supreme Court has generally accepted an implied right based on several amendments. This debate falls under the jurisdiction of the Fourth Amendment, the right against unreasonable search and seizure. But since when does the government have a say over our safety when we travel? Since 1958, when the Federal Aviation Administration was founded as commercial airline travel became more popular across the nation. Then known as the Federal Aviation Agency, it was intended to oversee all aspects of air travel, and security became a major one as skyjackings increased in the ‘70s. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a separate department known as the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was formed, which focuses entirely on security – including decisions on pat-downs, body scanners, and when, why and how you are searched.
If you flew on a commercial airliner in the 1960s or ’70s, it was much like riding a train today. You bought your ticket and walked right to the gate without any interruption. You walked down a flight of steps to the tarmac, up a flight of steps to the plane, and you were on your way. By some accounts, it was even a more formal affair – men wore suits, women wore dresses, and in-flight meals were fancier (and more edible).
This changed as soon as midair violence began happening. On an infamous flight on Thanksgiving in 1971, a passenger known as D.B. Cooper, claiming to possess a bomb, held his plane hostage in exchange for $200,000. After receiving the ransom, he allegedly parachuted out the back of the plane and was never heard from again.
Cooper’s skyjacking (as well as several other, less successful attempts) led to big changes. Some involved the plane – making the exit door inoperable in midair – others involved changes to the airport, including metal detectors and passenger searches. Air travel began to seem less like a nice romantic dinner and more like a chore.
Security was tightened further when a bomb was detonated onboard Pan Am Flight 103 near Christmas in 1988, killing 270 people. Security began inspecting portable computers, radios and the passengers themselves more extensively.
Consumer advocates of the time worried about the safety of scanners (though it was revealed that scanners gave off less radiation than a luminous wristwatch). Consumer advocates of the 21st century share bigger concerns with today’s more advanced full-body scanners.
These are in use at about 20 of the nation’s airports, with more expected to be installed by next year, covering half of the air travel checkpoints across the U.S. Opponents still worry about the potentially hazardous radiation these scanners produce. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has called the level of radiation produced by the scanners “almost immeasurable, it’s so small.” But Helen Worth, a representative for Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, which conducted one of the examinations for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), told CNN that the group did not evaluate the machines for human safety, just for raw data. Rather, they determined radiation levels, and the TSA made the evaluation.
Consumer advocates also worry about violations of passengers’ privacy, since the scanners produce X-ray images of virtually naked bodies. If passengers do not want to go through the scanner, they must consent to a full-body pat-down or be refused entry on the plane.
“TSA is forcing travelers to consent to a virtual strip search or allow an unknown officer to literally place his or her hands in your pants,” said John Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties organization.
For some passengers, this is too much. CNN recently reported on several instances of passengers arguing with, and even attacking, airport security personnel. One passenger, named John Tyner, refused to go through a machine in San Diego. When an officer attempted to conduct a pat-down, Tyner said, “If you touch my junk, I’m going to have you arrested.” He now faces an $11,000 fine.
In an interview with CNN, TSA head John Pistole defended the actions of airport security personnel.
“Those security officers there are there to work with you, to ensure that everybody on that flight has been properly screened,” he said. “Everybody wants that assurance, so just try to be patient, work with our folks. They are there to protect you and your loved ones, and let’s make it a partnership.”
What do you think?
Does airport security violate passengers’ privacy? Are full-body scanners necessary? What about pat-downs? Do the concerns with personal privacy, and health from radiation exposure, outweigh security? Or are they a necessary precaution passengers should cooperate with? If you were head of the TSA, how would you find a balance between these concerns? Join the discussion and let us know what you think!
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