Those of us who fly on either a regular or irregular basis are well aware of the process of pre-flight screening that passes for our domestic War on Terrorism. The gropings, invasive scannings, tweezer, nail clipper, toothpaste tube, deodorant and shampoo confiscations have become a routine part of taking flight in most developed nations of the world. As a person with a dark complexion, black hair and a generally not terribly closely shaven appearance (and yet, I have no Middle Eastern heritage that I know of), I usually get the "extra special screening" and generally find my carry on baggage thoroughly searched, my hands tested for explosive residue and my boarding pass snatched from my grubby paws until I have passed the extra line of questioning reserved for those of us who dare to fit the pre-assumed appearance of a potential inflight trouble maker.
In the United States and Canada, the use of Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) or what is commonly known as full-body scanners has taken over, limiting the human-to-subhuman contact that passed for security screening in the not-to-distant past. Generally, ticket-bearing passengers are given three choices; passing through the imaging equipment, having an intimate pat down by a gorilla-fingered security agent or declining the aforementioned procedures and being denied boarding. Thanks to a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals on a case brought forward by the fine folks at the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) back in 2011, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) now has to publicly clarify that in order for the sweaty masses to pass into the inner and "sterile" area of an airport, passengers may be screened and inspected by procedures that may include the use of AIT, resulting in total strangers seeing this:
…or this video that shows what can be done with the images:
With the United States having among the highest obesity rates in the world, one cannot imagine that the job is any great thrill for the most part. Personally, if someone really wants to see my package, knock yourself out. That said, I would prefer the pat down as it limits my exposure to unnecessary if infinitesimally small doses of radiation passing through my “boys”.
Many Americans are expressing concerns about the increasingly invasive hands of Big Brother and, on the Regulations.gov website, are verbalizing their anger over the TSA's current power grab. Here are a few of the more interesting recent comments:
"I urge that we do not start using these types of scanners. Considering the rash of undercover operations of people getting through screening with dangerous objects, I have resolved to believe that airline security is a personnel issue. Do you really have to pat down an 80 year old woman in a wheelchair? Or search a baby? Or take a woman's breastmilk that she just drank in front of TSA agents to prove it wasn't a "threat"? Of course not. That's the problem. The majority of people that you hire to work at the TSA are either ill-trained, incompetent or uneducated. (If you have a chance to hear the way they talk and think out loud, you'd generally make the same assessment.)
I have an idea: Pay more for the job and hire smarter people. The quality of work will go up, better, non-irrational decisions will be made and passengers will feel better about the time it takes to go through security procedures."
"Nude Body Scanners are an ineffective, perverted violation of privacy. I opt out. However, I am still physically and emotionally violated by the TSA's disturbingly invasive Enhanced Pat-downs.
The times I have been subjected to these unlawful procedures, I have experienced extreme panic attacks and distress as a result of the physical violation. I consider it sexual abuse. I have boycotted the airline industry because of the TSA. I will not pay someone to violate and abuse my person and my constitutional rights. The TSA and its procedures are a complete disgrace and should not be allowed to continue. Not only are the Nude Body Scanners and Enhanced Pat-downs completely ineffective, they are a violation of the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution."
"I completely oppose the use of these imaging devices. And even more so the so called "pat downs" and strip searches unless they have a bonafide reason for doing so. Searching children and children in wheelchairs is pathetic. No one has the right to touch me or my own, especially when they don't know me. I'm a grandmother and was completely humiliated when pulled aside. I flew from Arizona to Texas because my daughter was sick, I was already upset and when pulled aside it was embarassing. I was left in a cubicle for 10 minutes before anything was done. The TSA thinks this is acceptable? They are focusing on the wrong people instead of going after terrorists. Americans should not be treated this way in their own country."
"How many terrorists have the scanners and grope downs caught? NADA!"
Here, in my mind, is the comment that sums up the scenario in one sentence:
"If the dignity of people simply exercising their right to travel continues to be violated, then the terrorists will have won in that they will have succeeded in destroying some of our constitutional rights. "
Let's look at a key part of the mission of the Department Homeland Security:
"Securing and Managing Our Borders – The protection of the Nation’s borders— land, air, and sea—from the illegal entry of people, weapons, drugs, and other contraband while facilitating lawful travel and trade is vital to homeland security, as well as the Nation’s economic prosperity. The Department’s border security and management efforts focus on three interrelated goals: Effectively securing U.S. air, land, and sea borders; safeguarding and streamlining lawful trade and travel; and disrupting and dismantling transnational criminal and terrorist organizations."
How much does all of this security fun cost taxpayers? Keeping in mind that the TSA has wide-ranging security responsibilities that go beyond screening and prescreening 100 percent of the 1.8 million air travellers that fly on a daily basis, their budget is substantial at $7.91 billion in fiscal 2013 as shown here:
As shown on this pie chart, this will work out to 12 percent of the entire $59.959 billion fiscal 2014 budget for the Department of Homeland Security:
To ensure the safety of the travelling public, the TSA now has more than 46,000 Transportation Security Officers at 448 airports in the United States.
The cost of TSAs information technology, checkpoint technology, security screening equipment and infrastructure alone is expected to drop by $288 million from fiscal 2012 as a result of the $3.2 billion cuts to the Department of Homeland Security. The Federal Air Marshal Service alone is expected to cost $906.9 million in fiscal 2013 ($858 under sequestration), down from $965.8 million in fiscal 2012.
In order to catch the "bad guys", here's what the TSA proposes for those Americans who will be flying now and in the future:
Strengthening Risk-Based Aviation Security: The FY 2014 Budget supports DHS’s effort to employ risk-based, intelligence-driven operations to prevent terrorist attacks and to reduce the vulnerability of the Nation’s aviation system to terrorism. These security measures create a multi-layered system to strengthen aviation security from the time a passenger purchases a ticket to arrival at his or her destination. The FY 2014 Budget:
o Continues expansion of trusted traveler programs, such as TSA Pre✓TM, which are pre- screening initiatives for travelers who volunteer information about themselves before flying to potentially expedite screening at domestic checkpoints and through customs. By 2014, TSA anticipates that one in four members of the traveling public will be eligible for expedited screening.
o Continues enhanced behavior detection in which interview and behavioral analysis techniques are used to determine if a traveler should be referred for additional screening at the checkpoint. Analyses from pilots in FY 2013 will inform next steps for how larger-scale implementation in FY 2014 could improve capabilities in a risk-based security environment.
o Expands Secure Flight to perform watch-list matching for passengers before boarding large general aviation aircraft. An estimated 11 million additional Secure Flight Passenger Data sets are expected to be submitted by general aviation operators per year.
o Supports, as part of its multi-layered security strategy, the Federal Flight Deck Officer and Flight Crew program as a fully reimbursable program under FLETC’s existing authorities.
o Prioritizes TSA’s mission-critical screening functions, and proposes the transfer of all exit lane staffing to local airports pursuant to Federal regulatory authorities. Airports will be responsible for integrating exit lane security into their perimeter security plans, which are assessed regularly by TSA.
After having my tube of toothpaste confiscated, it's most reassuring to see that we really are taking key measures to ensure that we are living in a much more secure world today than we were before September 11, 2001. From the comments that I noted above, many other air travellers feel the same way.
Scan and/or pat away. All you can lose is your privacy and dignity.
Click HERE to read more of Glen Asher's columns