It’s been almost five years since the Transportation Security Administration quietly began installing its so-called Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) — better known as full-body scanners — at airports nationwide. And now the government wants to know what you think of the machines.
In 2011, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ordered the TSA to engage in what’s known as notice-and-comment rulemaking on its use of the technology. You can share your opinion on the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking at the Federal Register Web site until June 24.
In other words, air travelers can finally give the government a piece of their mind about the controversial scanners and the way they’re used at airports. Depending on how the public responds, the TSA could either double down on its multibillion-dollar scanner program, or it could decommission the machines and impose alternate standards, including using metal detectors and explosive-trace detection screening.
The TSA hopes that passengers will approve of its current screening practices. “AIT is the best technology available to detect both metallic and non-metallic objects hidden on a passenger, and is an important part of TSA’s multi-layered security efforts,” says agency spokesman David Castelveter.
Still, the agency assigned to protect America’s transportation systems promises to listen and respond to the public comments. “TSA will review and analyze the public comments to develop a final rule related to the screening process using AIT,” says Castelveter.
But critics question both the agency’s claims and its sincerity.
“This technology raises significant privacy problems,” says Khaliah Barnes, an attorney for the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC). “When TSA deployed the body scanners, it initiated one of the most sweeping, most invasive and most unaccountable suspicion-less searches of American travelers in history.”
EPIC has repeatedly challenged the use of body scanners in court, arguing that the technology is ineffective and violates a passenger’s individual privacy rights. The court-ordered public comment period is a direct result of EPIC’s suit against the Department of Homeland Security.
Other activists have raised concerns about the health effects of the machines, claiming that AIT technology hasn’t been adequately tested. TSA insists that the scanners are safe for all passengers and meet national health and safety standards.
But mostly, a coalition of privacy advocates is opposed to the way the scanners are used at the airport, with passengers forced to choose between walking through the machine or facing what’s called an “enhanced” pat-down. Many travelers complain that these manual exams by TSA agents are abusive and punitive. The TSA says that the “vast” majority of passengers do not receive pat-downs and that those who do have “important” rights that are respected by its screeners.
What are the options?
The rulemaking asks the public to comment on four possible changes in the way passengers are screened. First, TSA could turn the clock back to before 2008 and use metal detectors as the primary passenger screening technology. Any alarms would be resolved with a pat-down. This is an option already being offered without incident to a sizable group of passengers, including those who qualify for TSA’s expedited Pre-Check screening, airline crew members and military personnel on duty.