Monday, December 06, 2010

TSA Has Gone Too Far

It’s not too often that I take an unequivocal stand on a controversial issue. But this time I will. The U. S. Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) is wasting millions of dollars putting thousands of harmless passengers through humiliating, indecent, and probably unconstitutional searches, while failing in its primary mission to catch potential terrorists. I say this as a participant in the invention of one of the two main technologies currently being deployed for whole-body scans at U. S. airports.

Back in 1992 when airport security checks of any kind were a novelty, I was consulting for a small New England company whose visionary president anticipated the future demand for whole-body contraband scans. I helped in the development of a primitive version of the millimeter-wave scanning technology that is now made by L3Comm. The scan took 45 minutes, had very low resolution, but produced recognizable images of non-metallic objects hidden under clothes. As I recall, the main reason the company didn’t pursue the technology further was that it revealed too many details of the human body, and we thought the public would rise up in revolt if some bureaucrat proposed to electronically strip-search all passengers.

Well, here we are eighteen years later, and the TSA is now installing that technology plus a similar (but even more detail-revealing) X-ray technology at dozens of airports across the land. The agency is reluctant to share any information that would cause it problems, but the few images that have gotten into the public media are enough to tell us that Superman’s X-ray vision is indeed here. In the movie of the same name starring the late Christopher Reeve, the X-ray vision thing was played for a joke in his encounter with Lois Lane. But forcing thousands of ordinary, harmless citizens, including elderly folks and young children, none of whom have been charged with a crime, to subject themselves to electronic invasions of privacy, with the potential for abuse that entails, is an outrage.

Not only is it an outrage, but it is unlikely to achieve the purpose which the TSA says it is achieving at this tremendous price: lowering the risk of terrorist acts in the air. So far, airport body scans have caught zero terrorists. None. All the interceptions and near-misses we have had lately have been thwarted either by alert passengers (and incompetent terrorists), by tips from people with knowledge of the plots, or by old-fashioned detective work that doesn’t stop looking when it runs up against a matter of political correctness. The U. S. is nearly unique among all major nations in relying on this inefficient and intrusive blanket of technologically-intensive measures to achieve safe air travel, rather than focusing limited resources on groups and individuals who are the most likely to cause trouble, as the Israelis do.

The current administration is bending over backwards not to offend Muslim sensibilities in this or any other situation. I am all for respecting and allowing religious freedom, but when nearly all crimes of a certain kind are associated with members of an identifiable group, whether they be Muslim, Jewish, Christian, liberal, conservative, red-haired, or whatever, I don’t want those charged with the responsibility of catching them to purposely throw away that information and instead impose punitive and humiliating (and ineffective) searches on every single person who chooses to fly. And I haven’t even gotten to the “enhanced” pat-downs that the TSA offers as alternatives to the whole-body scans. That amounts to asking whether you would rather have your thumb squeezed with a pair of pliers or in a vise.

The public statements of the TSA on this matter have been about what you’d expect from a rogue bureaucracy. Inanities such as saying “if you don’t want to be searched, just don’t fly” are as useful today as saying “if you don’t like risking your life in automobile traffic, get out and walk.” Here is where the best hope of reversing this egregious and unconstitutional overreaching lies: in the boycotting of airports where the new systems are used. If air travel decreases to the point that the airlines notice it, they will become allies to the public in the battle, and there will be at least a chance that Washington will listen to corporations that employ a lot of union workers, rather than the great unwashed masses that have been ignored repeatedly on everything from health care to offshore oil drilling already.

Civilizations can decline either with a bang or by slow degrees. In historian Jacques Barzun’s monumental From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present, we find described as one of the characteristics of modern life a slow encrustation of restrictions on freedom exacted by bureaucracies whose ostensible purpose is to make life better in the progressive fashion. I think Barzun had in mind things like income-tax forms and phone trees, but he lives right down the road in San Antonio, whose airport just installed the new scanning systems. I doubt that he flies much anymore (he turned 103 last month), but if he does, he will be faced with a good example of his own observation: some hun-yock* in a blue uniform will treat the dean of American historians, a man whose family fled World War I to the U. S. and freedom, to the degrading and wholly unnecessary humiliation of being suspected as a terrorist and having his naked body exposed to the eyes of some nosy minion of the government.

To Jacques Barzun and to all the other people who simply want to get from A to B on a plane and have no malevolent intentions regarding their mode of transportation, I apologize on behalf of the engineers and scientists whose work has been misused, among whom I count myself.

Sources: The millimeter-wave technology used for whole-body scans is described well in the Wikipedia article “Millimeter-wave scanner,” and the X-ray system can be read about at My Jan. 10, 2010 entry in this blog has a reference to my published work on the early version of the millimeter-wave scanner. *The word “hun-yock”, which I find spelled on the Web as “honyock” or “honyocker” was used by my father to indicate a person who did something unwise and publicly irritating. I can think of no better term for the present situation.

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