Airport Body Scans and Pat-Downs Raise More Privacy Concerns

Airport security expert says full-body scanners are a misguided safety measure.

by / November 19, 2010
scanning airport booth

The online leaking of 100 photos depicting full body scans from an airport security scanner — images of passengers’ naked, X-rayed flesh — has sparked more debate about the privacy safeguards and the necessity of the screening systems.

The photos were revealed Tuesday, Nov. 16, after the popular blog Gizmodo solicited a Freedom of Information Act request for the images as part of an investigation. The images of public servants and private citizens had been saved by U.S. marshals in Orlando, Fla., from scans on the GEN 2 millimeter wave scanner. The federal government has in the past assured the public that any such images would be discarded as soon as they’re viewed for the sake of citizens’ privacy.

The news broke one day before John Pistole, the head of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the agency in charge of airport security, testified before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation and defended the agency’s security activities. The TSA’s scanning practices, as well as its use of invasive full-body pat-downs, have become the subject of growing public criticism.

In airports where the scanners are in place, passengers must submit to full-body scanning or an enhanced pat-down if they want to fly. These pat-downs involve officers using fingers instead of just their hands for the inspection. One California man, John Tyner, gained notoriety for refusing both the scan and pat-down in San Diego and telling an officer, “We can do that out here, but if you touch my junk, I am gonna have you arrested,” according to one report.

Both screening methods have come under fire elsewhere. Unions for U.S. Airways and American Airlines pilots have told members to skip full-body scans. Both groups expressed concern over X-ray radiation levels, but Capt. Dave Bates, the Allied Pilots Association president, called the enhanced pat-down alternative “a demeaning experience.”

Tyner said that security officials were spending inordinate amounts of money on security that isn’t necessary and doesn’t work. Steve Howard, airport security expert and vice president of credentials at CertiPath, echoed similar sentiments when he spoke to Government Technology.

“I think that we’ve taken our eye off the ball in terms of where we ought to be applying the pressure to make the aircraft safer, and the terrorist community has figured out that the cargohold is by far the easier thing to put a bomb into,” Howard said.

He finds the TSA’s deployment of the invasive scanners and pat-downs reactionary and a misguided application. The scanners were installed in numerous airports in the spring following a failed bombing attempt on Dec. 25 last year. The TSA plans to have about 1,000 installed in the United States by the end of 2011.

The Government Accountability Office has claimed that the TSA deployed scanners without fully testing them and assessing their effectiveness. In his Wednesday testimony to the committee, Pistole said the TSA used technology and protocol to stay ahead of the terrorist threat. And a post on the Food and Drug Administration website claims that the X-rays emit very low levels of radiation. Howard feels that TSA has botched the marketing and deployment of the technology, implementing it without building enough public trust or readiness.

He also believes that TSA’s high turnover rate would impede chances of more effective deployment down the road.

“I’ve done some significant work with TSA folks, and the turnover rate at the leadership levels that are going to make the policies — they’re just not the same people year to year. So what we see them do is, a new guy comes in, he does the best he can do with the congressional mandate that was handed to him for that month, and they try to solve a problem. And in comes full-body imaging, and not a single effort to market this and ensure that the public will accept it,” Howard said.

But maybe the public actually wants the scanning process. A recent CBS poll indicated that four out of five Americans approve of full-body scanning. But the debate will continue as Americans enter the holiday season, and sites like and abound. And New Jersey lawmakers are calling on Congress to halt scanning deployment.

According to CNN, a civil liberties union has filed suit against U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Pistole on behalf of two pilots who refused a body scan and a pat-down.

And the U.S. marshals who saved the images may have violated policy in any case. Napolitano was quoted in a story saying that a scanner image is “neither retained nor transmitted,” implying that officers are indeed not supposed to store them.

Hilton Collins

Hilton Collins is a former staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines.

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