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By Jay Stanley, Public Education Director, ACLU Technology & Liberty Program

Okay, so no one is explicitly calling for body cavity searches for all airline travelers — yet. But the logic of those pushing for body scanners for all airline passengers, and criticizing the ACLU for opposing that, leads to the inescapable conclusion that these critics would support such a policy.

Consider:

  1. When Richard Reid brought explosives onto an airliner hidden in his shoes, the authorities made everyone remove their shoes. When security experts and other critics pointed out that this was "silly security," defenders argued that we must put up with it in order to block that particular kind of plot.
  2. Now that a disturbed person has brought explosives onto an airliner in his underwear, panicked voices want the TSA to essentially view naked pictures of every passenger who boards an airline — that's up to 2.5 million people per day on domestic flights alone.  When the ACLU and members of Congress object, critics cry that we must abandon our personal dignity and privacy in order to block that particular kind of plot.

  3. It is far from clear that body scanners will, as so many people seem to be assuming, detect explosives concealed the way that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab concealed them. Some experts have said plastic explosive can be concealed against the human body. It's not clear how good scanner operators would have been at detecting the "anatomically congruent" explosives Abdulmutallab hid in his underwear (let alone how consistently effective bored operators would be if these $200,000 machines were placed at every screening station in every airport for 2.5 million people a day).

  4. However, if terrorists even perceive that scanners will work, they take the next logical step and conceal explosives in their body cavities. Al Qaeda has already used this technique; in September a suicide bomber stowed a full pound of high explosives and a detonator inside his rectum, and attempted to assassinate a Saudi prince by blowing himself up. (The prince survived.)

So it seems that when the next terrorist tries to blow up an airliner using this technique, all the usual jittery voices surely will once again say that we must abandon our personal dignity and privacy in order to block that particular kind of plot. So we'd just like to get ahead of the game and state right now that the ACLU will be opposed to that.

Of course, even if body cavity searches for all were made policy, terrorists would probably shift their efforts to just hiding explosives in their carryon baggage, and the TSA's level of success in catching contraband has always been, shall we say, mixed. And reliably catching every possible means of hiding 50 grams of explosives is probably impossible given the millions of people who fly each day.

Yes, the government must zealously work to make us as safe as possible and to take every reasonable step to make sure security breaches like the ones that led to the Christmas Day attempted attack are not repeated. But we need to act wisely. That means not trading away our privacy for ineffective policies. We should be investing in developing technologies such as trace portal detectors (a.k.a. "puffer machines") that provide a layer of security without invading privacy, and in developing competent law enforcement and intelligence agencies that will stop terrorists before they show up at the airport.

Ultimately, it is up to the American people to figure out just how much privacy they want to abandon to block a few particular means of carrying out terrorist attacks. The ACLU represents those who value privacy in this debate. But when Americans make that decision, they should do so with their eyes wide open, without any illusions that this will prevent all attacks on airliners, much less attacks on shopping malls or all the infinite number of other plots and targets that terrorists could come up with if they are not stopped by competent law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

(Cross-posted to The Seminal.)

Originally posted to ACLU on Thu Dec 31, 2009 at 10:45 AM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Allow me to be the first (11+ / 0-)

    to agree with your argument, far fetched as it may seem. There is (sorry) NO WAY to 100% terrorist-proof an airplane. & I think we've really got to consider the risk vs the ridiculous extremes we could go, to protect against unexpected death.

  •  That would create a lot of new jobs, but (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Sychotic1, ilovecheese

    I doubt there would be a big rush to get them.

    So I see only tatters of clearness through a pervading obscurity - Annie Dillard -6.88, -5.33

    by illinifan17 on Thu Dec 31, 2009 at 10:51:27 AM PST

  •  How much explosive can fit in a toothpaste tube? (5+ / 0-)

    How much can fit in a shipping container?

    Which is more likely to be searched?  (hint, not the shipping container)

    Sunshine on my shoulder...

    by pkbarbiedoll on Thu Dec 31, 2009 at 10:55:11 AM PST

  •  asdf (0+ / 0-)

    The logic you present in the first paragraph is extremely flawed and does your wonderful organization no favors at all.

    •  The 'inescapable conclusion' part? (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      vcmvo2, cocinero, ilovecheese

      I agree, that language is off.  But the current push for scanners and the surprising lack of care about it in the public is quite suggestive that we could see a push for searches and other more invasive procedures in the future.  

      It's far more satisfying to kick things apart than to build something that is less than perfect. Is it about your satisfaction?

      by Sun dog on Thu Dec 31, 2009 at 10:58:12 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  With you on this (7+ / 0-)

    So much of what we've been doing in airports for years has been a ludicrous song and dance that does nothing but give people an illusion of security.  The trick is trying to work towards a world where there aren't lots of people who think it's worth their life to blow some of us up.  

    It's far more satisfying to kick things apart than to build something that is less than perfect. Is it about your satisfaction?

    by Sun dog on Thu Dec 31, 2009 at 10:55:31 AM PST

  •  Learning which battles you should fight (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Rimjob, bobtmn

    And this isn't a good one.

    I'm a pretty fierce left-libertarian, someone who believes in the value of the individual and the need to exclude government from our private lives as much as possible.

    But flying isn't a protected right.  You can drive, take a boat, take a bus, there are alternatives to this essential mass-transit system and if you choose to use it, you have to submit yourself to whatever universal system they choose.

    You have a choice, you don't have to fly.

    And if you do, and they mistakenly decide that this is best way to do things, it is a political mistake to oppose it.

    •  You are OK with a cavity search? (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      greycat, Dobber, martydd, ilovecheese

      Really?

      I should drive across the country for my brother's surgery intead of a CAVITY search?

      I don't see air travel as having an alternate forme.

      •  Scanners are quite good. (0+ / 0-)

        Heard a discussion a few weeks ago in the NY Times about a guy getting radiation therapy.  He was warned not to use the tunnels because they'd pick up his seeds.

        Scanners work by looking at density variation, and it is easy to tell what's flesh and what isn't.  So unless they create explosives that mimic the density and water content of flesh, they won't have to do this.

        And in time, scanners will only improve.

        •  Though I generally agree with your point (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          wu ming, vcmvo2, ilovecheese

          about the efficacy and operation of scanners - this part caught my eye:

          So unless they create explosives that mimic the density and water content of flesh

          That is not on its face a particularly challenging technical exercise. Moreover, an equally obvious solution would be to make a blend that mimics the density of the polymer or cloth from which a particular garment is made.

          None of the above dissuades me that the key point remains that catching these people should become an outgrowth of good, coordinated intelligence / police work. (Which is how certain other attempted terrorist plots were averted). The TSA / Schipol reaction to broaden the scope and application of last line of defense screening technology is the wrong one, no matter the strong merits of ACLU's argument on civil liberties.

          The better answer is to stop such plots from reaching fruition. Something that Bush&Co sadly neglected.

          no remuneration was received by anyone for the writing of this message

          by ItsSimpleSimon on Thu Dec 31, 2009 at 11:28:42 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  Two notes (0+ / 0-)

            Tailoring (I think that's a pretty good pun in this case) an explosive to match specific densities will dramatically reduce its power, or stability.  Last thing you want is to have this go off when you're stepping out of the cab.

            And it is getting harder and harder to determine who is a terrorist.  Two out of these three "shoe bombers" were for all practical purposes British citizens.

        •  Scanners good. (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          ItsSimpleSimon, ilovecheese

          People watching scanners?

          "Not the truth in whose possession any man is, or thinks he is, but the honest effort he has made to find out the truth, is what consitutes the worth of man."

          by Lying eyes on Thu Dec 31, 2009 at 11:28:51 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  Get them BEFORE they get to the airport. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    vcmvo2, Lying eyes, sfbob

    We could have gotten Atta and this guy BEFORE the airport and that is the ONLY way to stop all terror on planes.

    sure, wand for explosives, do what we do now, but we can't stop everything unless we stop them before they board.

    That can be done since we know it could have been done.

    PROFILE.
    Sorry, in this case, don't waste time on my 93 yr old jewish mother.

    •  Difficult (0+ / 0-)

      Tactics change to suit the response.

      This is why profiling is getting harder and harder, because this latest guy wasn't the typical demographic, and the guy last week even less so.

      If we make it harder for them to enter the cockpit, they'll find other ways to do it.

      Read a very good article (wish I remember where) about the Israeli system, which depends on highly trained people asking direct questions and watching the response.  If a person looks suspicious, he's gone.

  •  The fact the ACLU has to make this statement... (7+ / 0-)

    is a saaaaaaaad reflection on society.

    There are so many people, even Kossacks, that are flailing about, saying that we must give up liberty for security, that the electronic strip search isn't so back, that we shouldn't worry about untrained rentacops looking at pictures of our pointy bits.

    How far we've fallen.  You think the Founding Fathers would put up with this shit?

    I agree with you. I want to do it. Now make me do it! - Franklin Delano Roosevelt http://meldroc.com/

    by meldroc on Thu Dec 31, 2009 at 10:59:59 AM PST

  •  As even the secret service can tell us (6+ / 0-)

    There is no foolproof way to ensure the safety of people if the person who seeks to do harm is willing to die in the process.  There are no security measures, no matter how intrusive that can guarantee safety.

    I refuse to live in fear.  I will take reasonable precautions but I won't give up my freedoms or my privacy for a bit of illusory safety.

    Repubs - the people in power are not secretly plotting against you. They don't need to. They already beat you in public. (Bill Maher)

    by Sychotic1 on Thu Dec 31, 2009 at 11:00:09 AM PST

  •  The American people will agree to body (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    vc2, ilovecheese

    scanners.  See the CNN informal poll on their web-site.  These are already in use in some airports for some flights.  Its only going to increase.  

    I have no problem with it, nor do most people.  This site will skew to the left on that issue, but even many here are pro-body scan if it means a higher measure of safety.

    We'll always be fighting the terrorist.  There will always be a new threat, and then a new technological response to the threat.  And most American's prefer that we meet the threat with technology.  

    And we will never remove all risk.  There will always be new attempts, the chance for technological and human error, etc.  But most American's will agree to give up some privacy for security.  And body scans are not body cavity searches.  I'll walk, ride bike, take a train, or drive if it comes to that.  But that is not what we are looking at here.

    Expose the lies. Fight for the truth. Push progressive politics. Save our planet. Health care is a right, not a privilege.

    by lighttheway on Thu Dec 31, 2009 at 11:04:27 AM PST

    •  i like the dutch way with them (0+ / 0-)

      they apparently already have the technology where it will go to a computer program first. Only if there is an anomaly will the image go to a human for a decision.

      That is one of the reasons they decide to actually use all the scanners they have so quickly.  They had been concerned about the privacy issue, that a computer program as the first image line was in production...it seems it is ready.

      To me that is a balance between some creepy security guy looking at me naked and people stuffing explosives, taping lizards and animals to their bodies (especially endangered ones) etc. in their clothes on to their bodies.

      I have no CLUE why the US doesn't use that as well.  Instead they say the person looking at the image will be in a diff room...uhhh so? we don't get to see them laughing at our naked bodies so its better?

      That said overall i don't see a huge problem with scanners. No you can never make an aircraft totally safe but its absolute foolishness not to try as much as possible when the equipment is available to see if things are strapped to the body without an invasive cavity search.

      "I know we will have differences. Put them aside. It is so easy to focus on where we don't agree and to lose the big picture. Fight until we win" -Kwickkick

      by vc2 on Thu Dec 31, 2009 at 11:33:59 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  A walk-through fluoroscope unit (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    irishwitch, Dcoronata, ilovecheese

    would eliminate any justification for cavity-searches.  A good unit can detect plastics and other foreign substances---even the overlapping seam lines from wrapping your thigh with layers of tape---and it'll detect the differences between flesh tissue and powders/liquids.  A top-of-the-line unit will even allow real-time videorecordings of blood-flow without barium injections.

    Now, the airlines and their insurance-carriers ought to foot the bill for these machines, since the cost of machines and operating crews is just a tiny portion of the costs related to a bombed aircraft and several hundred passengers/crew.

    If they don't want to pay up---then tell them to park the damned planes.

    A wildcat strike against a recalcitrant, apologetic Party is the order of the day. Every day.

    by Liberal Panzer on Thu Dec 31, 2009 at 11:06:12 AM PST

  •  As To Point 3...... (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    irishwitch, Dcoronata, ilovecheese

    The machines CAN detect a plastic explosive concealed against a human body. The reason why the machines would have trouble is because they've been modified to erase anatomical detail & allay privacy concerns.

    The technology is less foolproof at finding plastic explosives because of the modifications made to protect passenger privacy.

    The backscatter machine to be tested in Phoenix is programmed to erase anatomical details. This "edge detection" technology looks for changes in density or molecular structure on the person and draws outlines around those areas.

    •  That's a good point (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Rimjob, irishwitch, ilovecheese

      But it also shows why scanner critics are trying to have it both ways.  On one hand, they use images of the old-school body scanners to claim it's a huge invasion of privacy, but they don't show you that modern scanners essentially show cartoons:

      Photobucket

      That's what we're talking about with the modern scanners -- not exactly a "nude body" now, is it?  

      But it'd be interesting to see if it's true that the "modesty" concerns have made detection more difficult.

      Incidentally, what exactly would the scanner show with regards to, say, a clitoral hood piercing?  They're becoming a lot more common recently (a fourth friend of mine recently got hers done, and that's just of the people I know have them.)  Would that set off alarms too?  

      A health care worker, beaten at work, then denied health care: HelpAmelia.com

      by cartwrightdale on Thu Dec 31, 2009 at 11:19:55 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  What have I missed? (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    vcmvo2, irishwitch

    A man with a questionable background was allowed to board and American plane in a foreign country.  Do flights bound for America on American planes get screened by American personnel?


    The religious fanatics didn't buy the republican party because it was virtuous, they bought it because it was for sale

    by nupstateny on Thu Dec 31, 2009 at 11:24:19 AM PST

  •  Personally, I think we should just all fly nekkid (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ilovecheese

    Well, except for Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck--the mere  thought of seeing them nekkid makes me ill.

    It makes as much sense as cavity searches.

    The last time we mixed religion and politics people got burned at the stake.

    by irishwitch on Thu Dec 31, 2009 at 12:24:01 PM PST

  •  Thanks for the diary. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ilovecheese

    With no definite future & no purpose other then to prevail somehow - The Mermen

    by blueoregon on Thu Dec 31, 2009 at 12:25:53 PM PST

  •  I don't have a problem with the bodyu scanners (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ilovecheese

    It's not as if they're actual photographs someone could print out and jerk off to (and if they did, who would it really hurt?).  WHY are Americans so hysterical about that sort of privacy? I'd prefer them to a patdown (and, yes, I've had a couple of very  careful body searches in my time; one was in Madrid in  74 when there'd been an issue a few days earlier--they searched everyone boarding a plane).

    As for #3, why doesn't someone TEST them to see if they'd be able to reveal anatomically congruent padding or plastic explosives?  Wouldn't that be the way to settle the issue?

    The last time we mixed religion and politics people got burned at the stake.

    by irishwitch on Thu Dec 31, 2009 at 12:28:15 PM PST

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