Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Hyperbole Rules the Day on TSA Searches

The TSA is frequently castigated for its heavy handed policies and often contradictory policies. The agency came into existence in the wake of the 9/11 attacks as part of the reorganization of the domestic security apparatus and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security.

From that point forward civil libertarians have consistently been critical of the TSA's screening policies and often intrusive nature of screenings. They have also been on the vanguard of those critical of the new full body scanners (FBS) that use minute amounts of radiation to scan for objects hidden under clothes without the need for a patdown.

The TSA has recently been fielding these scanners around the country and has allowed airline passengers to choose between the FBS or pat-downs that can include checking the genital region. Lest we forget, the reason for that particular search was because a terrorist attempted to blow up an airliner using explosives sewn into his underwear. That came following another terrorist who attempted to blow up a plane with explosives built into his shoes.

These are ongoing and persistent threats and the TSA has enacted these scans and searches to keep the flying public safe.

Now, right wingers are jumping on the civil libertarian bandwagon claiming that these searches are unconstitutional or otherwise violate their civil rights. These groups are pretty much complaining about policies that they were supporting just a few years ago not out of principle but because the President is someone they do not like.

They've even proffered websites and campaigns to opt-out on the busiest flying day of the year November 24 - of both the pat-down and body scan (even if the FBS aren't available at all airports).

Some argue that the scanners inflict more radiation on individuals than should be allowed - and the pilots union has called for their elimination, even though pilots are subjected to more several times more radiation while on board a transcontinental flight than they are in dozens of scans combined. And the radiation isn't the kind that can increase risks of cancer:
There are two types of machines -- millimeter wavelength imaging and backscatter X-ray scanners. Both are used to see under clothes and identify unusual objects.

Only one -- backscatter X-ray machines -- expose individuals to ionizing radiation such as that used in common medical X-rays.

But the radiation levels are well below the threshold that could be considered a risk to an individual's health, said Dr. James Thrall of the American College of Radiology and chief of radiology at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

"All of the concerns that we have about the medical use of X-rays really don't apply to these devices," Thrall said in a telephone interview.

"The exposure is extremely low and the energy of the X-rays is also very, very low," he said.

"When X-rays are used for medical imaging purposes, they have to be energetic enough to get through the human body. The X-rays used in the backscatter machines in airports have such low energy that they literally bounce off the skin. That is what backscatter implies," Thrall said.


The United States has 40 millimeter wave scanners now in use in 19 U.S. airports. Six machines are used for primary screening at six airports, and 34 machines are used for secondary, or random screening, as an alternative to a pat down at 13 airports.
The real problem pilots have with the scans is that they're being searched in the first place. They'd much rather be able to avoid the scanners and screening. So, they're glomming on to whatever other criticisms are available.

Moreover, the FBS and pat-downs aren't exactly a new policy enacted by the Obama Administration. They began under the Bush Administration and the FBS are now being fielded in large numbers after tests done over the past several years.

Still, FBS is not without some criticism. Is there a reason to post body imagery on the screens that essentially shows the scanned passenger naked? No. The software could be rewritten so as to project the offending items on a generic body outline or skeleton akin to the scene from Total Recall where passengers walked in front of a scanning device that highlighted explosives or weapons with flashing lights. That makes more sense than the current system. It would further speed the scanning and reduce error.

Of course, the FBS, like the patdowns and metal detectors aren't foolproof and require screeners to be consistently competent at their work. Repeated tests have shown that screeners often miss hidden weapons and banned objects. That's why a layered screening system is necessary.

At the same time, the focus on air safety ignores the fact that terrorists can just as easily bypass the screening by attacking other transportation targets like bus depots and railways - as they have done repeatedly around the world for decades.

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