A Matter of Security

The big story over the weekend was about John Tyner, a software engineer who refused the TSA body scan and pat-down at the San Diego airport, and was subsequently removed from the airport and fined $10,000 for being uncooperative.  What makes this a big story is the fact that Tyner recorded the entire incident on his cell phone and then posted it on YouTube; he also wrote a full account on a blog using the moniker “johnnyedge”[1].  The video and blog have gone viral in the 48 hours since the incident took place, the YouTube video receiving over 200,000 hits.

There is quite a lot going on in this story that is worth examining.  First off, the relatively new practice of using the backscatter x-ray scanners and the TSA’s policy to administer a full pat-down to any passengers that opt-out of the scan have been under fire since they were first introduced.  Several stories have surfaced in the last year regarding the new technology, though none quite so markedly as Tyner’s.  One of the concerns raised was whether or not the body scan images were saved and stored [2]; the TSA confirmed that this was not the case in August, although it continues to be an issue raised in the argument against the body scans.  The issue does raise the question of precisely what does happen with the images?  How do the scanners work?  Is there no memory that stores images, even in the short term?  What if the scan does reveal someone in possession of something nefarious?  Doesn’t the scan represent evidence?  Surely there must be some system in place to preserve the image when this happens—if not, it does not seem particularly effective.  And if yes, the question is whether or not such a system violates the human rights of passengers.

I bet the TSA is rather unhappy right now, given the rising tidal wave of public discontent it is now facing.  I’ve written a lot about web content as records in this journal, so I won’t over-emphasize it now, but clearly the video/audio record Tyner preserved and uploaded to the Internet will impact the TSA’s operations—the extra time and labour spent dealing with uncooperative passengers, of navigating the negative press, and of correcting its policies and procedures will directly translate into dollar amounts.  As one article on Gizmodo suggests, there is a lot of money for manufacturers and lobbyists in the implementation and use of the new body scanners [3]; there’s a lot of money at stake if their adoption is stymied by bad press and public outrage.  And why?  Because one person recorded this activity and made the record public.

A movement in the US has grown around the rejection of the body scan technology and the TSA’s policies.  The website “I Made the TSA Feel my Resistance” has gone up, and is calling for “National Opt-Out Day” on November 24—the busiest day of the year for air travel.  It encourages passengers to refuse the body scan when they go through security. [4]

While I’ve always been sympathetic with the challenging (let’s face it—impossible) task of providing airport security, I think Tyner’s use of records and the web are useful in one very important way.  It forces us to ask: In what way does the body scan technology protect passengers?

____________________________________

[1] The original blog post and videos are available here: http://johnnyedge.blogspot.com/2010/11/these-events-took-place-roughly-between.html

An article by the Associated Press about the story’s popularity can be viewed here: http://www.mercurynews.com/breaking-news/ci_16617995?nclick_check=1

As well as a blog post on the CNN Newsroom website by one of the network’s correspondents can be viewed here: http://newsroom.blogs.cnn.com/2010/11/15/dont-touch-my-junk/?iref=allsearch

[2] The issue of whether the images are stored or not was first raised last January, as represented in this article on CNN.com: http://articles.cnn.com/2010-01-11/travel/body.scanners_1_body-scanners-privacy-protections-machines?_s=PM:TRAVEL

The TSA refuted these claims at the time on their blog: http://blog.tsa.gov/2010/01/advance-imaging-technology-storing.html

The issue again made headlines in August with the following article on cnet: http://news.cnet.com/8301-31921_3-20012583-281.html

Which the TSA again refuted: http://blog.tsa.gov/2010/08/tsa-response-to-feds-admit-storing.html

[3] Loftus, J.  (2010, November 14).  TSA Full-Body Scanners: Protecting Passengers or Padding Pockets?  Gizmodo. Retrieved on November 15, 2010 from http://gizmodo.com/5689759/tsa-full+body-scanners-protecting-passengers-or-padding-pockets

This article also effectively summarizes the current controversy surrounding Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT).

[4] http://www.imadethetsafeelmyresistance.com/

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    • Ali
    • November 16th, 2010

    Have you seen this article? I imagine that it was posted to Twitter today in response to this controversy, but though it’s almost a year old, it’s a very interesting and perhaps relevant to the security theatre debate: http://www.thestar.com/news/world/article/744199—israelification-high-security-little-bother

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