TSA Balances Privacy and Security with Body Scanners, Pat Downs

The uproar over security measures could cause headaches for Thanksgiving travelers.

By + More

If you're traveling by plane this Thanksgiving, that extra stuffing-and-gravy weight could be a bit harder to conceal. With ramped-up safety procedures at airports nationwide, security officials may be able to see—or feel, if you choose—just what's hiding under your clothes after the holiday.

Last month, the Transportation Security Administration increased its use of advanced imaging technology machines in response to heightened security threats. Passengers in approximately 70 U.S. airports now have the choice between a full-body scan and an enhanced "pat-down" procedure. Opponents of the new protocols, including civil liberties groups, say that the increased security measures are too intrusive. Nevertheless, the TSA insists its new policies are here for good reason.

[Check out our roundup of editorial cartoons on air security.]

"Do I understand the sensitivities of the people? Yes," said TSA administrator John Pistole in a Senate transportation committee hearing on Capitol Hill last week. "Am I going to change the policies? No, because I think that is what's being informed by the latest intelligence, the latest efforts by terrorists to kill our people in the air."

At last week's hearing, senators acknowledged the difficult task at hand but pushed back on the TSA to do more to appease the public. Texas Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison noted that the outcry is "huge." "There's got to be a way for a privacy concern to be addressed," she said. Sen. Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, also encouraged Pistole to find new solutions. "We must make sure that people don't get on airplanes with bombs. The question is: how do we do that in a way that doesn't go to the nth degree to invade people's privacy and do things that most people would find unacceptable?" he said.

So far, according to the administration, there are about 400 advanced imaging machines deployed nationwide. By the end of the year, the TSA hopes to roll out an additional 100 machines. And by the end of 2011, the TSA expects to have a total of 1,000 machines in U.S. airports. The new machines reveal to security personnel a head-to-toe, X-ray-like image of a person's body. But, unlike traditional security scanners, advanced imaging technology can detect nonmetal items on a person, like explosives or ceramic weapons.

Pistole testified that the TSA has taken several steps to protect the personal privacy of airline passengers. For example, he emphasized that passengers can refuse the scan in favor of a pat-down in the security line or in private.

It's TSA protocol, he assured, that any officer who sees the passenger never sees the image of that passenger, and vice versa. Pistole also affirmed that the administration disables the machines' ability to store images, hoping to quell fears that the government is keeping those images on file. As a further privacy control in the future, he said the TSA is hoping to introduce a new screening software that would distort the images that officers viewed on their screen, transmitting them as warped or stick figures.

[Read the U.S. News debate: Should the TSA Rely Upon Full Body Scanners?]

The TSA says that less than 3 percent of travelers get pat-downs. Most who are screened this way are people who refuse the advanced imaging machine or metal detector, or who set off alarms when passing through the scanners.

Over the weekend, Pistole issued a video message to travelers via the TSA's YouTube page to explain the new procedures. Also, the administration began distributing a public service announcement to be broadcast across airports nationwide. In it, Pistole informs passengers of the new screening procedures and asks them to read about their options. "We appreciate your patience as we all work together to keep travel safe," he says in the announcement.

Regardless of the TSA's efforts to garner public cooperation, the backlash has been widespread. Many groups are staging boycotts of air travel in protest of the machines. Similarly, there's an Internet campaign to promote "Opt-Out Day" today, one of the busiest travel days of the year, in which activists will "opt out" of the scan and receive a pat-down, which will slow the screening process. Joshua Sherman, who runs the website flywithdignity.com, says he and other protesters hope that the disruption caused by refusal to use the machines will encourage the TSA to rethink its strategy.