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Airport “Security” and the Police State

November 11, 2005


My joy of traveling is tinged these days with a growing sense of unease. Too often I find myself stuck in lines for hours, waiting while airport staff subject my fellow travelers to increasingly absurd security measures. They stand, awkward, bewildered and shoeless as white-gloved hands run across their bodies. I, a blue-eyed white girl, pass through easily each time, while those whose skin is even slightly darker are taken aside for more invasive searches.

Do people complain in these lines? Sure, about how long it takes, about how inconvenient it is. You won’t hear anyone asking if our rights are being protected, or if these measures actually make us safer in any tangible way. And don’t grumble too loudly—questioning the procedure or refusing any part of it is interpreted as “suspicious” behavior and results in more rigorous searching.

I didn’t fly much pre-September 11, so it’s difficult to imagine a system that didn’t involve military personnel with automatic weapons and German shepherds. But squint just a little and you can almost see a future in which these checkpoints and security screenings will creep out of the airport and into the streets.

In May, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced that it plans to use new X-ray machines that penetrate clothing to generate images of naked bodies—and any concealed drugs or weapons. “Backscatter” technology, which bounces low-radiation X-rays off a person’s skin to produce photo-realistic computer images, is already being tested at London’s Heathrow airport, and by U.S. customs agents to scan travelers suspected of carrying drugs.

The $100,000, fridge-sized devices are cause for controversy among groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who call the process a “virtual strip.” Although the TSA refuses to disclose the location of the machines, they will begin using them to screen passengers at selected airports this year.

Although the technology is new, the motivation behind it is not: we are being asked to relinquish our civil rights in the name of security. The ACLU has been outspoken against rights infringements since new “anti-terrorism” transportation legislation was introduced in October 2001. In a letter to Congress, they outlined three key guidelines for evaluating the “Secure Transportation for America Act” and the “Aviation Security Act II:

First, any new security proposals must be genuinely effective, rather than creating a false sense of security. Second, security measures should be implemented in a non-discriminatory manner. Travelers should not be subjected to intrusive searches or questioning based on race, ethnic origin or religion. Finally, if a security measure is determined to be genuinely effective, the government should work to ensure that implementation of it minimizes its cost to our fundamental freedoms, including the rights to travel, due process, privacy and equality.

One of the ACLU’s main concerns is the use of biometrics—various technologies that use pattern recognition of fingerprints, hands, faces, voices and eyes to identify individuals in a database. Biometrics are being touted as a more accurate and efficient means of screening airport staff and passengers. And this is no science fiction scenario; U.S. visitors from countries other than Canada and Mexico are fingerprinted and photographed upon entry as the Bush administration pushes for the wider implementation of what it calls “biometric passports.”

In a 2003 speech to the Transportation Research Board (TRB), PrivacyActivism staff counsel Linda Ackerman addressed the practical, legal and ethical aspects of biometrics and airport security:

There are a number of problems with biometric identifying technologies right out front:

• they all present enrollment problems—that is, getting the control sample into the database. It’s especially problematic to enroll the bad guys you want to screen against
• the systems can be fooled—some of them very easily
• the databases in which any bioidentifiers are stored are always vulnerable
• they raise questions about how many constitutional rights we can be required to give up, or are willing to give up, to get on a plane

In other words… biometric security implementations, fall critically short of solving the problem of identifying bad actors, and they create new problems, and, in my view, the social costs of becoming a surveillance society that banks ever more personal information about its citizens are prohibitive.

She is especially critical of the backscatter devices, which she dismisses as “porno security”:

I find it surreal that such a system was ever tested at all. Whatever problems this system solves, they’re nothing compared to the problems it creates—including public outrage and what seems to me a clear violation of whatever is left of 4th amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure—of an image of your naked body, which was stored and later shown on TV when the story was reported.

As Ackerman points out, the false sense of security created by biometric technologies means that lower-tech, less invasive procedures will be overlooked. Worse, the initially limited use of these technologies paves the way for their acceptance in wider society.

This move towards “total surveillance” at any cost is nothing less than the expansion of a police state in America. Every freedom sacrificed “for our own protection”—privacy, freedom of thought, speech and association, the ability to move about freely and freedom from unreasonable search and seizure—is another step closer to this reality.

As always, prisoners are on the front lines of these human rights struggles. Strip searches are all too often used not to ensure “security,” but to harass, intimidate and punish inmates. If such abuses remain unchallenged, should we be surprised that these tactics are being turned against the citizens of the police state?

Ackerman, Linda. “Biometrics and airport security.” Speech at the Transportation Research Board Panel on Personal Security in Washington, D.C. PrivacyActivism. 13 January 2003

American Civil Liberties Union. “Letter to the House on Anti-Terrorism Aviation Security Bills.” ACLU. October 2001

Fellner, Jamie. “Prison Abuse: How Different are U.S. Prisons?” Human Rights Watch.

Phillips, Amy. “Prison Abuse is No New Scandal.” etalkinghead. 20 May 2004.

Tully, Andrew. “U.S.: Rights Group Challenges Airline Security Effort.” 7 April 2004

Turse, Nicholas. “The Homeland Security State.” AlterNet. 1 February 2005

“Visitors to be Scanned Naked at U.S. Airports.” Flat Rock. 18 May 2005

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