TSA plans modest changes to 'virtual strip searches'

TSA tells Congress that "new policies" likely will exempt pilots from controversial new screening procedures. But general public may not benefit.

An Internet-fueled backlash against air traveler screening is growing amid signs that the Transportation Security Agency will consider slight changes to its controversial new procedures.

TSA administrator John Pistole said today that the agency will be "announcing some new policies" in the "near future" that will change the screening process for pilots, who have protested being forced to choose between a "virtual strip search" or an invasive pat-down a few minutes before they're handed the controls of a 975,000-pound kerosene-fueled missile in the form of a jumbo jet. (See our previous coverage .)

But a TSA source told CNET this evening not to expect broader changes that would affect the general public. A revised screening process for only pilots could involve a biometric ID card that would allow security to be bypassed at high-traffic airports.

This image of an adult man was taken using a Rapiscan Secure 1000 backscatter X-ray scanner John Wild (johnwild.info)

Pistole's promise of a concession for pilots came during a sympathetic hearing before a Senate committee chaired by Joseph Lieberman, who congratulated TSA on "doing the right thing" for airport screening. Lieberman is an independent senator from Connecticut who caucuses with Democrats.

Pilots and flight attendants aren't alone. As the Thanksgiving travel season draws near, the reaction to TSA's new procedures has been visceral and sharply critical, driven by cell phone recordings of security line incidents, privacy and health concerns, and Web sites including the Drudge Report, which published a photograph of a hands-on examination of a nun with the caption: "THE TERRORISTS HAVE WON." Yesterday's Colbert Report called them machines "that X-ray your X-rated parts."

Another memorable line came from John Tyner, a software engineer from Oceanside, Calif., who became an Internet sensation after telling a TSA screener: "If you touch my junk, I'll have you arrested." Tyner had the foresight to record the exchange on his mobile phone (videos are here) and is now facing a possible lawsuit with an $11,000 civil penalty for entering a security line and then not allowing a government employee access to his crotch during a pat-down search. "Don't grab my junk" T-shirts and hoods, of course, already are available.

In a pre-Internet era, TSA could have weathered these complaints, which would have merited a brief mention on the evening news instead of building into a storm of criticism. Amateur videos posted on YouTube including one of a screaming 3-year-old being treated none too gently by an airport screener, and bloggers describing how they were "sexually assaulted" after genital touching, have put the agency in an unusually difficult position. (Pistole also probably didn't appreciate the Washington Times editorial titled "Big Sister's police state" or calls for abolishing TSA outright.)

TSA administrator John Pistole tells U.S. Senate he wants "partnership" with flying public irked about full-body scans. U.S. Senate

TSA has responded by downplaying the new procedures, saying they're similar to the European approach. "There's actually a very small number or percentage that would actually have the pat-down," Pistole told the Senate Homeland Security Committee today. And Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano (TSA is part of DHS) wrote in an opinion article in USA Today yesterday that "pat-downs have long been one of the many security measures used by the U.S. and countries across the world."

"Those security officers there are there to work with you to ensure that everybody on that flight has been properly screened--everybody wants that assurance," Pistole said. "They are there to protect you and your loved ones. And let's make it a partnership." TSA's Pistole will face more questions tomorrow morning at a hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, chaired by Sen. John Rockefeller (D-WV).

TSA's official blogger, who uses the apparent pseudonym Blogger Bob, went so far as to say this week that: "There is no fondling, squeezing, groping, or any sort of sexual assault taking place at airports." (Blogger Bob has also responded to the Don't-Touch-My-Junk videos.)

The origin of this controversy is simple: thanks to the federal stimulus legislation, TSA has been able to buy approximately 373 whole-body scanners and install them in at least 68 airports around the country. A few weeks ago, with only a one-paragraph mention on TSA's Web site, the screening procedures were changed to offer air travelers a choice of either full-body scans or what the TSA delicately calls "enhanced patdowns." (In some circles, they're better known as "rapescans" and porno-tron machines, or, as the ACLU puts it, "strip search machines.")

This sense of unease, or perhaps incipient rebellion, comes as an estimated 24 million travelers are expected to fly during the 2010 Thanksgiving holiday season. One Web site, OptOutDay.com, is recommending what might be called strict civil obedience: it suggests that all air travelers on November 24, the day before Thanksgiving, choose "to opt-out of the naked body scanner machines" that amount to "virtual strip searches." Nudeoscope.com, DontScan.us, and StopDigitalStripSearches.org are organizing their own protests.

One of the many anti-whole body scanner efforts, this is the logo from stopdigitalstripsearches.org EPIC.org

Body scanners penetrate clothing to provide a highly detailed image that TSA says will be viewed by a remote technician. Technologies vary, with millimeter wave systems capturing fuzzier images with non-ionizing radio waves and backscatter X-ray machines able to show precise anatomical detail.

TSA says it does not store scans, and there is no evidence indicating the agency does at routine airport checkpoints. But documents that the Electronic Privacy Information Center obtained show the agency's procurement specifications require that the machines be capable of storing the images on USB drives. A 70-page document (PDF), classified as "sensitive security information," says that in a test mode the scanner must "allow exporting of image data in real time" and provide a mechanism for "high-speed transfer of image data" over the network.

"Travelers are upset and travelers are going to revolt," Marc Rotenberg, EPIC's executive director, said today. The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization, a dogged critic of the body scanners, already has filed a lawsuit saying TSA violated federal law when rolling out the machines and is planning a new lawsuit seeking agency records concerning testing and evaluation of health impacts of airport body scanners.

Biochemistry faculty members at the University of California at San Francisco have written the White House saying the X-ray "dose to the skin may be dangerously high." The Obama administration said in a WhiteHouse.gov blog post last week that they have "been studied extensively for many years by the Food and Drug Administration" and other government agencies and deemed to be entirely safe.

John Sedat, a UCSF professor of biochemistry and biophysics and member of the National Academy of Sciences, told CNET afterward that the administration's response has "many misconceptions, and we will write a careful answer pointing out their errors."

 

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