The Transportation Security Administration’s new rules for screening passengers with its controversial full-body scanners — which were quietly changed just before the busy holiday travel season — represent a significant policy reversal that could affect your next flight.
Getting checked by the TSA’s advanced-imaging technology used to be entirely optional, allowing those who refused a scan to be subjected to a pat-down. In fact, many observers thought the agency installed the 740 body scanners in 160 airports with an understanding that no one would be forced to use them, ever.
But on a Friday in late December, the TSA revised its rules, saying an “opt out” is no longer an option for certain passengers. (The full document can be found on the Department of Homeland Security’s website.) The decision drew mixed reaction from experts and raised concerns from passengers. The biggest: Will I get pushed through one of these scanners before I board my next flight?
“Most people will be able to opt out,” says Bruce Anderson, a TSA spokesman. “Some passengers will be required to undergo advanced-imaging screening if their boarding pass indicates that they have been selected for enhanced screening, in accordance with TSA regulations, prior to their arrival at the security checkpoint. This will occur in a very limited number of circumstances.”
To some, the change appeared to be timed to ensure a muted public response. It escaped the traveling public’s notice until almost a week later, which happened to be Christmas Eve. Anderson says the TSA wasn’t waiting for a slow news day. “The revision to this policy was designed to provide TSA with the flexibility necessary to address immediate security concerns,” he says. Either way, barring a major outcry, the new opt-out rules are likely to stick. But it’s still too early to tell how the TSA plans to implement its new protocol or how the vague guidelines could affect your spring break or summer flights. That, say TSA observers, is cause for concern.
Passenger advocates object to the full-body scanners on many levels. The pricey machines, they say, were deployed without giving the public a chance to comment, a process required by federal law. They also say the devices violate the Fourth Amendment right to protection from unreasonable searches and seizures. Also, the scanners have not been adequately tested and may present health risks, some claim.
Critics say the technology is easily foiled and ultimately ineffective at identifying threats, citing an audit in which the TSA failed to catch weapons 67 of 70 times. To date, the scanners have not thwarted a single attempted terrorist attack, these agency-watchers correctly point out. What’s more, the agency has broken a promise it made to passengers and legislators when it began installing the scanners in 2009.
“The TSA is going back on its word,” says Fred Cate, a law professor at Indiana University and prominent TSA-watcher. “The scanners were sold to Congress and the public on the promise that they were optional, but for at least some people, that is no longer the case.”