Blown To Bits

The Full Body Scanning Debate

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009 by Harry Lewis

In the New York Times, travelers and privacy experts present their views on whether the millimeter-wave scanners I discussed yesterday are an unacceptable invasion of privacy. Quoting a Utah Republican who sponsored a bill (which passed the House but not yet the Senate) banning the use of the devices except as secondary screening technology, the story says

“I’m on an airplane every three or four days; I want that plane to be as safe and secure as possible,” Mr. Chaffetz said. However, he added, “I don’t think anybody needs to see my 8-year-old naked in order to secure that airplane.”

Which is to say what, that no terrorist would put a bomb on an eight-year-old? I wonder if there is a name for this rhetorical device, where one transforms a general proposition into a personal insult.

EPIC, which had previously filed suit for more information about these devices, seems to me to have it right.

Marc Rotenberg, head of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said his group had not objected to the use of the devices, as long as they were designed not to store and record images.

Keep the screens in a separate room (as is done). Disable the recording capability (as is done). Make sure the operator doesn’t have a cell phone camera if you wish (though it is hard to imagine much titillation coming from these images, compared to what is readily available). But yes, check the passengers the way you check their luggage, and the wheel bearings for that matter. And yes, that is a role for government, or government-controlled entities. I don’t think we want a free market here, allowing airlines to trade off security for ticket price and allowing consumers to decide for themselves how much risk they are willing to accept.

Bruce Schneier is a very astute security expert, but I am not sure I follow his logic here:

Bruce Schneier, a security expert who has been critical of the technology, said the latest incident had not changed his mind.

“If there are a hundred tactics and I protect against two of them, I’m not making you safer,” he said. “If we use full-body scanning, they’re going to do something else.”

The millions of dollars being spent on new equipment, he said, would be better invested in investigation and intelligence work to detect bombers before they get to any airport.

The last part is surely true. Figuring out the line determining when someone goes on a no-fly list is tricky business. You don’t want any father with a grudge against his son to be able to ground the son by making a call to the Embassy. But it sounds like there were enough other dots to connect in this case to have set off appropriate alerts. I take Schneier’s point to be that the security perimeter at the airport is not the only place, nor even the best place, to keep terrorists off the plane, and the threat model that puts all the energy at stopping them there will be ineffective in practice. That sounds right, but isn’t really an argument against the use of the millimeter-wave technology.

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