The Stripping of Freedom: A Careful Scan of TSA Security Procedures


Airport body scanners are sometimes called "Whole Body Imaging," "Full Body Scanners," or "Advanced Imaging Technology." Body scanners produce detailed, three-dimensional images of individuals and have been described by security experts as the equivalent of "a physically invasive strip-search." In 2005, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), a component of the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), began to test full body scanners as a "pilot program," which Congress intended to be subject to comprehensive evaluation prior to "operational deployment." However, the TSA established body scanners as primary screening in the spring of 2009.

EPIC's FOIA Lawsuit

As part of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit, EPIC obtained documents establishing that the TSA required that airport scanners have the ability to store, record, and transfer detailed images of naked air travelers. EPIC also obtained hundreds of pages of traveler complaints, which described the invasive program and the lack of proper signage and information regarding the machines. The images captured by these devices, when matched with travel records, can uniquely identify individual passengers. The complaints obtained by EPIC also revealed that when air travelers choose not to undergo the body scans, they are subjected to pat-downs they describe as "coercive" and "retaliatory."

Opposition in Congress

Congress has taken action against the use of the body scanners. In December 2009, the House of Representatives voted 310-108 to ban the use of full body scanners as the "primary" screening technique in airports.

In August 2010, Senators Collins (R-ME), Burr (R-NC), and Coburn (R-OK) wrote to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, objecting to the expansion of the body scanner program.

This November, in hearings before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation and the House Committee on Homeland Security, members grilled TSA Administrator John Pistole about the privacy and health implications of airport body scanners. Also in November, Representatives Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS) and Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX) sent a letter to Administrator John S. Pistole, objecting to the new airport screening procedures, and Rep. Rush Holt, who has a background as a scientist, (D-NJ) wrote to Pistole about the radiation risks that body scanners pose. On November 24, Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) introduced the "American Traveler Dignity Act" that would hold TSA agents legally accountable for airline screening procedures.

"Invasive, Unlawful, and Ineffective"

EPIC has filed suit against the DHS to suspend the body scanner program because it is "unlawful, invasive, and ineffective." EPIC argues that the federal agency has violated the Administrative Procedures Act, the Privacy Act, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Video Voyeurism Prevention Act, and the Fourth Amendment. Three frequent air travelers are joining EPIC in the lawsuit: security expert Bruce Schneier, human rights activist Chip Pitts, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) legal counsel Nadhira Al-Khalili. The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has scheduled oral argument in this case for March 10, 2011. Others have filed lawsuits against the body scanners as well, including an airline pilot, two Harvard law students, and a Colorado attorney. And on the state level, the New York City Council introduced a bill to ban the use of body scanners in their airports.

Public Protests

Public grassroots opposition to the body scanners and enhanced pat-downs has grown even stronger in the recent weeks. Advocacy groups, including Flyers Rights and We Won't Fly, staged national opt-out of body scanners day on November 24, 2010. A Zogy poll found that that 61% of Americans oppose the use of full body scans and TSA pat downs. The American Pilots' Association, Airline CEOs, advocacy organizations, religious groups such as CAIR, the Libertarian party, and others are all calling for an end to invasive searches at airports.

Scientific Doubts about Effectiveness and Health Impact

Evidence continues to mount that TSA’s whole-body scanners do not detect powdered explosives or other low-density materials. Leon Kaufman and Joseph W. Carlson’s new study finds that “Even if exposure were to be increased significantly, normal anatomy would make a dangerous amount of plastic explosives with tapered edges difficult, if not impossible to detect.” Also, the EPIC FOIA lawsuit found that the body scanners are not designed to detect powdered explosives.

Several scientists have warned about the health risks associated with the full body scanners. A group of scientists at UCSF wrote to John P. Holdren, the Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, calling for further evaluation of the FBS technology, and identified several groups of people – including children and pregnant women, as being especially at risk of harm from the scans. Dr. John Brenner of Columbia University has said that the devices "deliver to the scalp 20 times the average dose that is typically quoted by TSA and throughout the industry." EPIC has filed several FOIA requests seeking TSA records concerning full body scanner radiation risks and testing.