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National Outcry over TSA Body Scanners and Invasive Pat-Downs

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As one of the busiest travel seasons of the year approaches, there is a public outcry over new airport security measures that include full-body scanners and invasive police-style pat-downs. We speak with the Electronic Privacy Information Center and the American Civil Liberties Union, as well as New York City Councilman David Greenfield, who introduced a resolution to ban the use of the full body scanners in airports within the city. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We’re approaching one of the busiest travel seasons of the year, but there’s an outcry over new airport security measures that include full-body scanners and invasive police-style patdowns. Pilots and frequent fliers worry about the radiation the scanners emit. The ACLU has denounced the scans, and the group Electronic Privacy Information Center, or EPIC, has filed a lawsuit to suspend the deployment of body scanners at U.S. airports, pending an independent review. The group alleges that the scanning procedures are, quote, “unlawful, invasive, and ineffective.”

A national protest is being put together over the internet, calling on people who are flying on the day before Thanksgiving to opt out of the scans and insist on public patdowns. The stated goal of the National Opt-Out Day is to draw lawmakers’ attention to the new security measures and respect the privacy of the flying public.

Here in New York City, city council members introduced a resolution to ban the use of scanners in the city. This is City Councilman David Greenfield.

COUNCILMAN DAVID GREENFIELD: It’s an outrage. It’s unacceptable. It’s ineffectual. And that’s why I’ve introduced legislation, with the support of many of my colleagues on the city council, to ban these naked body scanners from the entire New York City, including New York’s airports.

AMY GOODMAN: Some lawmakers, like Florida Republican Congressmember John Mica, are pushing for airports to switch to private security guards instead of agents for the Transportation Security Administration. or TSA. On Wednesday, Republican Congressman Ron Paul of Texas introduced the American Traveler Dignity Act, a bill that would hold airport security agents legally accountable for airline screening procedures.

REP. RON PAUL: What we’re accepting and putting up with at this airport is so symbolic of us just not standing up and saying, “Enough is enough.” Let’s make sure that every member of Congress goes through this. Get the X-ray, take a look — make them look at the pictures, and then go through one of those groping patdowns. And then I think there’d be a difference. Have everybody in the executive branch, anybody, a Cabinet member, make them go through it and look at it. Maybe they would pay more attention. But this doesn’t work. This is not what makes us safer.

AMY GOODMAN: For more on the body scanners and the new airport security procedures, we’re joined by two guests from Washington, D.C. Ginger McCall is assistant director of the Open Government Program at EPIC, the Electronic Privacy Information Center. And Chris Calabrese is legislative counsel with the ACLU.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! I was in Washington at the National Airport, Reagan Airport, and I didn’t — refused to go through the scanner. This was a couple weeks ago. I saw everyone going through it. And I said to the TSA guys, “I don’t get it. Am I the only one?” They said, “You are the only one who has refused to go through.” I think that’s hardly the case. But Ginger McCall, can you talk about the scanners, the electronic scanners, and what EPIC is doing about this, and the invasive patdowns, if you refuse, because, boy, you sure get one if you refuse to go through the electronic machine?

GINGER McCALL: So, EPIC has been working on this issue since about 2005. And we’ve actually filed a lawsuit over it to suspend the program while it’s evaluated for privacy, health and effectiveness. You know, we’ve really been working on this, because these machines are clearly a violation of the Fourth Amendment. They’re highly, highly invasive. And it’s a procedure that is applied to all American travelers.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s the science behind it? I always wondered, when your luggage goes through underneath, what kind of scanning does that get? Yet, when we go through, what is in those body scanners? What is the level of radiation, not to mention the pictures they’re taking of your body?

GINGER McCALL: So, there are two different kinds of scanner: there’s millimeter wave, and there’s backscatter. And the scanners produce a small amount of radiation. It hasn’t really been properly tested. There’s not a clear maintenance schedule for who’s going to ensure that the scanners continue to only put out the proper amount of radiation. There’s not proper testing on the effects of that radiation on children, on pregnant women, on immuno-compromised individuals.

What happens with the scanners is that, you know, you walk through it, you pose, the scanner scans you, and that picture gets sent back to a TSA official in a back room. And it’s a very, very invasive picture. You know, it shows cellulite. It shows love handles. It’s very detailed and very graphic.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And also, these scanners are able to store these images, as well as to transmit them to other government agencies, if necessary?

GINGER McCALL: So, EPIC had a Freedom of Information Act request with DHS to get more details on these scanners. And we initially made that request. DHS ignored that request. And we ended up taking them to court over it. And as part of that lawsuit, we got documents, a procurements specifications document that was scripted by TSA, and this document described everything that TSA required the manufacturers to put in these machines. And one of their requirements was that these machines be able to store and transmit the images.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, we’re also joined on the line by New York City Councilman David Greenfield, who represents the 44th District of the city in Brooklyn. On Thursday, Councilman Greenfield and six other councilmembers introduced a resolution to ban the use of the full-body scanners in New York.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Councilman.


JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, why did you take this stand? And obviously, if this passes the council, this would affect the two airports in New York City, Kennedy and LaGuardia?

COUNCILMAN DAVID GREENFIELD: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I took the stand because every American wants to be safe, right? And so, you trust the government when the government tells you, “Well, this is going to make you safe.” What’s shocking is that, you know, a lot of research has been done, including with the folks at EPIC, that actually indicate that these scanners don’t work. In fact, the safest airport in the world, Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, their security experts rejected these scanners. And the former head of security at Ben Gurion actually said he could get enough explosives through these naked body scanners to blow up a jumbo jet.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what is the company that manufactures them, and who approved? I mean, we’re talking — this is a multi-million-dollar sale all over the country, as they’re put in all over the country.

COUNCILMAN DAVID GREENFIELD: I think that’s actually the concern right here. You know, that’s a fascinating question. In fact, last year, right after the Christmas Day bombing, Michael Chertoff, the former director of Homeland Security, ran around and told many news outlets, including the New York Times, that if only we had these scanners, we would have been safe. He conveniently forgot to mention that he actually is the lobbyist for the two manufacturers of this technology. And then they rushed to get a $350 million contract to these two companies.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We’re also joined by Chris Calabrese of the legislative counsel for ACLU. Chris, your organization has also condemned the scanners. Could you talk about your concerns?

CHRIS CALABRESE: Well, I mean, they’re pretty simple. The fact is that the government’s giving you an intolerable choice. It’s either take a virtual strip search or endure a really aggressive groping. We don’t think either of those options is appropriate.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to play something else. The uproar of the new security procedures really picked up after one cell phone video when viral on the web. The video was taken by a man named John Tyner, 31 years old, software engineer. He was flying out of San Diego and refused to go through the full-body scanner and was subjected to an enhanced patdown instead. He recorded the encounter with the airport security agent, using his cell phone. Listen carefully.

TSA AGENT: We’re going to be doing a groin check. That means I’m going to place my hand on your hip, my other hand on your inner thigh, slowly go up and slide down.


TSA AGENT: I’m going to do that two times in the front, two times in the back.

JOHN TYNER: Alright.

TSA AGENT: And if you’d like a private screening, we can make that available for you also.

JOHN TYNER: We can do that out here, but if you touch my junk, I’m going to have you arrested.

TSA AGENT: Actually, we’re going to have a supervisor here because of your statement.

AMY GOODMAN: Soon after John Tyner said, quote, “If you touch my junk, I’ll have you arrested,” he was told he faced a fine of up to $11,000 and would be investigated by the Transportation Security Administration. The investigation into Tyner is still open, but the head of the TSA told a Senate hearing this week that he didn’t expect anything to come of it.

It’s also interesting that this is coming at the same time of this news that the Federal Labor Relations Authority is allowing airport security screeners to vote on union representation, clearing the way for a history-making election among federal government employees. We’re talking about 50,000 Transportation Security officers being allowed to vote on union representation. Remember when President Bush had them all under the Department of Homeland Security and said they couldn’t unionize. Well, that’s turned around. And I think it’s interesting because when you have people like the Florida Congress member, Mica, talking about privatizing these scanners, the people who are doing this, is this also in response to, well, breaking a possible union? Let me put that question to Chris Calabrese.

CHRIS CALABRESE: Well, one thing that’s very interesting, DHS, the inspector general of DHS, came out with a report this week that really faulted TSA for its training of screeners, saying it wasn’t giving TSA enough time to train people, it wasn’t letting them train at airports. And that clearly contributes to this problem, and it’s something that unionization might fix. Certainly, a union rep would want to make sure that all its members were able to get proper training before they did their job.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Chris, I’d like to ask you to broaden this whole issue of the government’s invasion of the rights of citizens and travelers. Your organization was able, through a FOIA request, to find out that 6,600 travelers have been subjected to electronic searches of their computers or electronic devices over a two-year period as they were traveling. And one case in particular, that of a French American citizen who was traveling on Amtrak from Montreal to New York and was stopped at the border, his computer was confiscated. Your concerns about this increasing searching of the electronic equipment of American citizens without any search warrants?

CHRIS CALABRESE: Sure. I mean, the thing is, we carry around our entire lives in our pockets now. What the founders would clearly have considered materials covered by the Fourth Amendment — you know, our letters, our records about our lives, our financial information, you know, pictures, if there had been pictures — this is all detailed information about our life, and I don’t think anyone at the time of the Constitution would have considered the government to be rummaging around in that information to be OK. But now, because of the way we live, we carry around in our iPhones and our laptops all of this information. It’s become almost impossible to travel without it as a business traveler. So the idea that the government can simply look at it for whatever it wants and go through it for other investigative purposes, we think that’s completely unreasonable and contrary to the Fourth Amendment.

AMY GOODMAN: Chris, you’re also looking at the issue of Facebook and Google. Tell us exactly what the government is demanding they be allowed to have access to.

CHRIS CALABRESE: Well, right now, the privacy laws in the United States are incredibly outdated. The privacy law that governs the internet was actually passed in 1986, so it’s pre-www. So you can imagine it doesn’t track terribly well to our existing problems today. So the government can get a lot of information with much less than a warrant standard, simply under existing law. For example, email, which I think most people can think of as being protected by a warrant, and fairly personal information. After a very limited period of time, 180 days, the government can get that information basically just with a subpoena. No court order, no warrant. And we think the law needs to be updated, and we think — so the government has an appropriate standard whenever it accesses this information.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the demands? Were you surprised by what exactly they’re asking of Google and Facebook? Can you explain for people who aren’t aware of this latest request, changing, actually, what — how the internet works?

CHRIS CALABRESE: Well, what the government has been asking in its most recent request is really to build in a back door into communications. So the way that the internet and communications are actually architected would have to be changed, so that if the government presented some kind of warrant or other order — and as we’ve said, they don’t need a warrant in many cases — the company would literally have to be able to sort of flip a switch and present the government with all that information. I mean, not only does that make surveillance easier, it changes the entire way the internet works. The internet is supposed to be a dispersed distributed system that’s secure, because the communications between two people can’t necessarily be broken. If you create a back door, it’s not just the government, it’s hackers and other individuals that may go in that back door.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Ginger McCall, your concerns at EPIC about some of these continuing invasions by the government of our use of the internet as well as of our own personal electronic material, whether it’s computers or cell phones?

GINGER McCALL: Yeah, definitely. EPIC has been following this. We have Freedom of Information Act requests in regarding the internet wiretapping proposal that Chris was just talking about. I mean, certainly, if you have an internet that’s constantly monitored, you’re going to have a real chilling effect on free speech.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, if David Greenfield is still with us, councilman from Brooklyn who has sponsored the legislation in the New York City Council to not allow theses scanners to be at LaGuardia and Kennedy — then you would have the patdowns. What is the most effective way to keep people safe at airports?

COUNCILMAN DAVID GREENFIELD: You know, what the Israelis actually do is behavioral profiling. They have a conversation with you. And these are trained ex-military officials who, after they have a conversation, can pick up on things like nervousness and facial tics. And that seems to be very effective. A problem that we have with the TSA is that they engage in theatrics to try to convince us that we’re safe, when in fact we’re not safe. Now they’ve crossed the line by forcing us to endure a virtual strip search. And that’s why we’re introducing legislation to stop the practice.

AMY GOODMAN: Of course, that could — that leads to a whole other discussion about racial profiling, which we can’t have right now. But this is an important discussion to continue, what should be happening at the airports. David Greenfield, a councilman from New York City. Chris Calabrese of the American Civil Liberties Union, is this a concern to you?

CHRIS CALABRESE: I’m sorry, the racial profiling?


CHRIS CALABRESE: Or what’s happening at the — I mean, the racial profiling —- sorry, I mean, it’s -—

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead.

CHRIS CALABRESE: You know, I think that, you know, the problem with the Israeli model is, in many ways, is that it doesn’t scale to the United States. And that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do, as the President said after the Christmas bombing, more intelligence gathering ahead of time to make sure that we’re catching people before we get to the airport. But, I mean, the bottom line here is that we’re in aviation security for the long haul now. This is not a short-term thing. TSA needs to turn its attention to developing technologies that not just help make us safer, but also protect our dignity and our privacy. I mean, I think a good example of that is the swabs that they rub on your hands at the airport that can detect traces of explosives. I mean, that’s really what we’re worried about here, someone sneaking a bomb on a plane. So I think we should look for explosives. And these are much less invasive technologies. They exist. They can be developed. They are much better than a virtual strip search or a grope.

COUNCILMAN DAVID GREENFIELD: I would add that I don’t think we’re in favor of racial profiling. I think there’s a significant difference between racial and behavioral profiling. But I think it’s also important that, as you mentioned before, we should actually start screening what goes underneath the planes. We still don’t have 100 percent screening of packages that go underneath the planes. And if you’re a terrorist, that’s probably a much simpler thing to do than to put the bomb on your body.

AMY GOODMAN: We will leave it there. Councilman David Greenfield of Brooklyn, Chris Calabrese of the ACLU, and Ginger McCall of EPIC, the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

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