Monday, January 04, 2010


On security and scanning

The New York Times published, the other day, an editorial about the security system failure that allowed the underpants bomber to get as far as he did. The editorial addresses, in part, the “whole body scanners” that are suddenly in greater favour:

The machines have been criticized by privacy advocates. We’ve had some qualms, too, especially with early versions that showed the outlines of a naked body too clearly. But security officials have managed to blur the images and adopted other procedures that should allay those concerns. What is needed is a rigorous and independent process of evaluation for whole body scanners and other equipment — the Transportation Security Administration has 10 at some stage of development — to figure out what provides the best security at the most rational cost.

In the letters to the editor in response to the editorial, one Steven Cohen comments on the privacy issue:

To the Editor:

You express some reservations about the use of full-body imaging detection systems for airport security and have some “qualms” about “early versions that showed the outlines of a naked body too clearly.”

Are you kidding?

The mere fact that these effective body scanners are discomforting to some privacy advocates shows a sexual uptightness we must overcome when lives are at risk. This is not about voyeurism. It’s about deterring every choice of concealment made by an extremist. To raise our comfort level with trained airport security personnel examining our body images, we need to trust their professionalism, as we do with physicians.

Steven Cohen

I’d normally agree with Mr Cohen that our sexual attitudes and the approach to nudity in our society are silly and stuck in an earlier century. At some level, it’s true that we just need to get over it.

But there’s more going on here. There are consistent reports, more than enough to establish credibility, that those selected in the past for screening by these machines are disproportionately those whom the screeners would like to see naked (spelling it out, here: women with nice bodies). As it’s implemented on the ground, at the airports, by the screeners, it is very much about voyeurism.

As with all of these sorts of things, not all TSA screeners are, nor want to be, peeping Toms; surely the vast majority are not. And, to be sure, there are physicians who violate their patients’ trust, yet we must trust them in general, nonetheless. But the comparison Mr Cohen makes is inapt.

The “trained airport security personnel” are not highly paid professionals who’ve spent years in detailed education and supervised training with the goal of helping to heal people. It’s a low-paid job for which people off the street get minimal training before being assigned to an airport security queue. Despite my belief that most of them are well meaning and proud of the jobs they do, I’m sorry: I do not, in general, trust their professionalism, both because of what I see for myself and because of the reports of others.

As it stands, passengers have a choice between these machines or a “pat down”. Before that changes, and submission to the scanning machines is required, we do have to deal with the issue of voyeurism.


Nathaniel Borenstein said...

While recognizing that I'm about as far from an attractive woman as a human being can get, and therefore may not have the proper perspective, I still don't understand how it's better to be patted down than virtually strip-searched by remotely located scanning officers. In either case, you can generally ensure that a same-sex security person does the work, but in neither case can you ensure that nobody's ever going to get their jollies from the process. True, with the scanners the images might be hacked into and/or reused, but if the alternative is being groped (even by someone of the same gender), are we sure everyone can agree which is worse? I think letting people choose between the two unappealing prospects is probably the right answer.

Barry Leiba said...

In the current implementation of the scanners, we're given no assurance of the sex of the screeners, which is exactly part of the problem. We're meant to trust that they're not looking at them pruriently, that there aren't half a dozen screeners pointing, leering and commenting, and that the images aren't retained.

The pat-downs are done out in the open, by one same-sex agent. Even if the agent is getting jollies from it, the exposure is limited, and there's nothing they can hold on to for later.

There's a big difference.

In any case, yes, choice is the best answer, provided we can have essentially equivalent security either way.

Ray said...

Even if the agent is getting jollies from it, the exposure is limited, and there's nothing they can hold on to for later.

I'm assuming the double entendres were intentional. Or perhaps they're just the inevitable result of my having been exposed to too much Benny Hill when I was growing up :-)