30 November 2010

About Process, Training, and TSA

The media has jumped on the flying public's anxiety over the new scanners and pat down procedures with a ferocity rarely seen in recent journalism history. As a result, there is a fair amount material available on the matter. For several days now I have listened to the furor over this issue, read numerous news articles, blog posts, comments to many posts, and watched several YouTube videos. There is no doubt in my mind that we are observing, in a very public forum, the breakdown of a public relations and airport security process.

In case you've been incommunicado with your computer, television, or newspaper for the past several months, the federal government has allowed Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to purchase scanning machines that provide a “picture” containing a high degree of detail about the form and contours of an individual's body, i.e. even though clothed, the image makes a person appear naked. It is possible for a traveler to refuse a scanning experience. However, in doing so, that person tacitly agrees to an "enhanced" pat down procedure.

Discussions have revolved around both the scanning machines and the pat downs. Concerns have been voiced regarding the scanning machines:

  • effectiveness of the scanning machines regarding airport security

  • invasiveness regarding the “nude” appearance of
    the scanned images

  • storage ability regarding the images taken

  • safety in terms of the radiation dosage,
    especially for certain populations – pilots, flight attendants, frequent fliers, and others[1]

As for the pat downs, various individuals have commented on the:

  • demeaning nature of the "enhanced" pat
    downs

  • inappropriate behavior of some TSA officers

  • necessity of "enhanced" pat downs for children

In addition, many journalists, bloggers, and commenters have raised questions about whether or not these changes in airport security could be considered a Fourth Amendment violation, resulting in unreasonable search.

Effectiveness

Security experts are questioning TSA’s approach to airport security. Take the comment from the Netherlands’ Schiphol Airport Security Chief,

"If you look at all the recent terrorist incidents, the bombs were detected because of human intelligence not because of screening ... If even a fraction of what is spent on screening was invested in the intelligence services we would take a real step toward making air travel safer and more pleasant."[2]

American security consultants, such as Bruce Schneier, have similar observations.

“Exactly two things have made airline travel safer since 9/11: reinforcement of cockpit doors, and passengers who now know that they may have to fight back. Everything else -- Secure Flight and Trusted Traveler included -- is security theater."[3]

Other security pundits cite the Israeli[4]method of handling terrorist risks, i.e., profiling, as much more effective.

Am I in favor of racial or ethnic profiling?

No, it is an unacceptable activity in a democratic society. Do I favor profiling questions based upon an assessment of risk? Yes, remember that Timothy McVeigh was an American white male!

Is my sense of security increased due to TSA’s activities? No, not really.

“The current security system in which everyone is a suspect is bound to be ineffective and burdensome. No system can perform efficiently when one is looking for a needle in a haystack by checking each straw individually.”[5]

Flying is risky, but not nearly as risk filled as driving an automobile. Do I want to be on that single flight that has a terrorist that was missed by intelligence services and TSA? No, I don’t. There are no guarantees in life, nor do I expect my government to provide one to me regarding airport security. In the words of a Thanksgiving holiday traveler,

“I just want to know if the TSA workers actually believe they are keeping people safe by feeling us up if we opt out of the full-body scan,” said Cara Eshleman, a baker from Arlington County who is flying out of Reagan National Airport on Wednesday and plans to opt out if she is directed to a full-body scanner. “It's too bad I already bought my ticket. If I'd have found out about this before, I wouldn't be going anywhere for the holidays.”[6]

Am I willing to trade my civil rights, privacy, and liberty for security theater? Absolutely not! It would appear that I am not alone.[7]Yet, TSA is busy assuring the public that “78% of poll respondents approve the use of full body scanners.”[8] What TSA conveniently glosses over is that the referenced poll was taken in January of this year, well in advance of the new procedures being put into place.

Invasiveness

If I have committed no offense, broken no law, nor behaved in a suspicious manner, how is it justifiable that I should be subjected to a machine that produces an image in which my body appears naked? This is just wrong on so many levels! Although TSA openly admits that the scanners are an invasion of people’s privacy, they justify the necessity by invoking images of bomb carrying terrorists boarding an American airplane.

"I just don't think the government has the right to look under
people's clothes with no reasonable cause, no suspicion other than purchasing a plane ticket."
[9]

“I am concerned about the exposure and I am equally concerned that someone saw my precious daughter as if she were naked. I was then put through as well and was humiliated and felt as though I were in a peep show. Before this trip, I honestly felt the scanners were a good idea and a price to be paid for travelling - after living it first hand, I have to say it is flat out WRONG[10]

Some people who experience these scanning machines feel violated. Still TSA basically holds the position that if someone feels violated, “too bad” it’s a small price to pay for security. I disagree. Price of this degree of invasiveness is too high.

Storage

The scanning machines can and do store images! TSA has already admitted that it requires all purchased body scanners to have the ability to store and transmit images for “testing, training, and evaluation purposes.” The agency also contends that those capabilities are not normally activated when the devices are installed at airports.[11] Right! In its reply[12] to the House of Representatives questions about privacy, TSA also states,

No cameras, cellular telephones, or other devices capable of capturing an image are permitted in the image viewing room. Any official or employee who fails to follow these strict procedures is subject to serious discipline up to and including removal.[13]

Given how unforthcoming the agency has been regarding these new procedures, can I really believe that some passengers’ images won’t end up in someone’s private file or on the Internet at a future time? The answer is probably not! In addition, the verbal remarks to buxom passengers attributed to TSA officials don’t fill me with much hope that anyone’s privacy is really respected by the TSA’s employees.

One traveler observed, “I will bet that we will catch more TSA employees guilty of inappropriately forwarding full-body scans of celebrities or attractive women than we will terrorists.”[14]

Safety

As frequent flyer who spends more than 70,000 miles each year, over roughly 45 weeks, in the air, this concerns me enormously.

Over the last several years I have listened to my fellow passengers question whether or not the security measures that the American flying public is forced to endure really work. I fly out of small airports on regional jets most of the time and, due to my frequent flyer status, often sit next to pilots or flight attendants on their way to work. Many of them tell me that I fly more than they do. That being the case, I have a health concern about radiation from a backscatter full body scanner.

TSA maintains that the health concerns are minimal and that most people are exposed to more radiation from their cell phones. This doesn’t allay my unease about the scanners. I want scientific proof! Not only that, but I find the cell phone reference specious, especially since I use a headset to keep my phone away from my head and my phone typically rests on a table at least 3 feet away from my body.

Demeaning Pat Downs

In the few weeks since the policy came into effect, the ACLU has received hundreds of complaints from travelers who have been subject to these invasive and suspicionless searches.[15] Interestingly, the 900 complaints that the ACLU claims to have received exceeds the test sample size of both polls claiming that most Americans don’t mind the scanners but have issues with the pat down procedure.

Below are some of the comments that travelers have reported to the ACLU.[16]

  • “I am upset, humiliated, degraded and feel abused and criminal, when I am guilty of nothing.”

  • “In all of these years and the thousands of flights and millions of airlines miles I have never been so humiliated. If my choice is to risk having my genitalia spread all over the internet and my body exposed to unknown radiation or to have my testicles bounced and my buttocks stroked I will not fly any commercial airline.... our humanity and our dignity are being violated. I HAVE HAD ENOUGH!”

  • “I opted out and was sexually molested in public. The method used to search my body was on par with a sexual massage by a stranger of the same sex. My penis was touched by a man. My anus and groin were rubbed by a man. My scalp was rubbed by the same person. How can this be acceptable...? These TSA agents are not qualified to deal with the psychological or ethical responsibility of this technology.”

In fact, during testimony before lawmakers in Washington, D.C., TSA’s new administrator agrees that the new pat down procedures are more invasive.

“I'm frankly bothered by the level of these pat-downs,” Sen. George LeMieux, R-Fla., told Pistole. “I wouldn't want my wife to be touched in the way that these folks are being touched. I wouldn't want to be touched that way.”

Pistole, who has been subjected to a pat-down himself, allowed: “It is clearly more invasive. But the procedures are necessary,” he said, “to detect devices not seen before.”[17] You saw it, ladies and gentlemen, “…necessary to detect devices not seen before.” Comments like this one have led some
to wonder if cavity searches are next on TSA’s agenda.[18] I wonder if Pistole has children. If he does, what is his explanation to them about a stranger in a TSA uniform that may touch them in private places and that it’s OK? One father said it best.

“We spend my child's whole life telling him that only mom, dad and a doctor can touch you in your private area, and now we have to add TSA (agents), and that's just wrong.”[19]

Inappropriate Behavior

In addition to the flying public and lawmakers’ perceptions that TSA’s new pat down procedures are demeaning and certainly more invasive than the previous procedure, what about inappropriate application of the new procedure by TSA officers?

I was the only female in a crowd of men. Even though I was not next in line, I was called over to the body scanner. As I got closer to the scanner, I could clearly hear him say ‘[G]ot a cute one, some DD's.’ ... I was appalled and decided at that point to ‘opt out’ of the scanner.... I was then put through the pat down procedure which I only can only describe as sexual assault.[20]

“Simply, I was sexually assaulted. My breasts were caressed in an almost amorous manner. And on the second canvassing of my groin, single-finger pressure was applied to my labia majora - the plane of which was near-broken, during which the agent made a wildly off-color remark.”[21]

Standardized procedural, as well as sensitivity, training could possibly mitigate much of this issue. Oh wait, according to a report released by the GAO[22], TSA does not have “a standard process to identify and coordinate the necessary computer support” for its computer based training of TSA officers!23]

Clearly TSA needs not only a better understanding of process and procedures, but also better training and execution.

Constitutionality

In an extremely lengthy blog post an author on Flopping Aces reminds the reader that, according to David Leach (first US air marshal under the Nixon administration), that various U.S. courts have agreed that:

“... yes, it was a violation of the fourth amendment, but it was acceptable to the courts with two provisos. One, that it be applied universally so there’s no chance of any discrimination, and two, that the search be limited to looking for weapons and explosives.”[emphasis added][24]

Let’s look at that first proviso, “be universally applied.” If I am to accept the truthfulness of the complaints registered with the ACLU, universal application of these new procedures is nonexistent. Talk to any private pilot, and s/he will tell you that there is NO screening of persons or luggage prior to boarding a private plane. Further, for those individuals fortunate enough to have access to private aviation, whether through company or government access or due to personal wealth, there is NO screening of anything. Again, I question the universal application of enhanced screening and pat downs.

Summary

It’s easy to say, “You don’t like TSA’s rules, don’t fly. Use an alternative.” According one of the polls[25] taken over this last week, some 48% of the respondents intend to do just that. They are going to stop flying. I don’t believe this is a realistic solution. The disruption to our economy could be serious were people to act on this sentiment.

So far, our elected officials seem to have allowed TSA to issue edicts, in the name of national security, without much discussion or inquiry into preserving the civil rights of the American public. To be fair, the American public, by and large, has unquestioningly followed along with each restriction of rights – until now.

TSA appears to have bypassed the process used by nearly every other federal organization that wants to change regulatory guidelines, regulations, or operational procedures.[26] In doing so, they have lost, not only the willing compliance of many citizens, but the confidence of the American flying public that they are acting in our best interest.

Rationality and a conversation about reasonable risks needs to occur. Why couldn’t we as a society engage in a national dialogue about where we are going to balance civil liberties and national security? That is, in part, the purpose of the Federal Register – to allow for discourse and discussion about federal rules and regulations. We could start there.


[1]http://www.avweb.com/eletter/archives/avflash/1777-full.html#203670

[2]http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/11/12/airport_security_scanners/

[3]http://www.schneier.com/

[4]http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-harris/what-israel-can-teach-the_b_408720.html

[5]http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2010/11/22/do-body-scanners-make-us-safer/israel-doesnt-use-scanners

[6]http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/11/23/AR2010112303954_2.html?hpid=topnews&sid=ST2009122902788

[7]Interactive: 61% Oppose Full Body Scans and TSA Pat Downs; 48% Will Seek Alternative to Flying”

[8]http://www.usatoday.com/travel/flights/2010-01-11-security-poll_N.htm

[9]Resisting Scanners

[10]Passengers' Stories of Recent Travel/

[11]http://news.cnet.com/8301-31921_3-20012583-281.html

[12]TSA reply to House of Representatives – 24 Feb 2010 page 3, question 8, paragraph 3

[13]Ibid

[14] “Note to TSA: Let me keep my shoes on”

[15]http://www.aclu.org/technology-and-liberty/aclu-reports-more-900-complaints-month-over-enhanced-tsa-security-measures

[16]Recent Travel Stories from Passengers

[17]“New Airport Pat-Downs Are MORE Invasive, TSA Boss Confirms”

[18]"Why Cavity Bombs Would Make TSA Irrelevant"

[19]“A whole new fear of flying”

[20]Recent Travel Stories from Passengers http://www.aclu.org/passengers-stories-recent-travel/

[21]Ibid

[22]"Transportation Security Administration’s Management of Its Screening Workforce Training Program Can Be Improved," Office of Inspector General, Department of Homeland Security

[23]Ibid, pg 5

[24]“The TSA conundrum: When security ugly and hype meets legal reality”

[25]Zogby Interactive: 61% Oppose Full Body Scans and TSA Pat Downs; 48% Will Seek Alternative to Flying”

[26] Petition for Suspension of TSA Full Body Scanner