Backscatter Blues – The Sequel

One of the two main security screening areas at Denver International Airport.

There appear to be two Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) scanners in place.
This configuration is the same at the other security checkpoint in the terminal.

Leslie and I spent a few (too few) very pleasant days together this week, and I flew out of the Pittsburgh airport Thursday evening. There are two AIT scanning units in place at PIT’s only security checkpoint, and I again did not have to make the scan-or-grope choice.

When I got back to Denver around midnight, I got the above look at a checkpoint with no one there. Two of the AIT units are in place at this checkpoint, along with two at the second terminal checkpoint. There are obviously numerous magnetometers in place that continue to screen passengers, and that only a percentage of the traveling public, if not a minority, are subject to the advanced screening at present. I obviously don’t know what the ratio of advanced units to the old-style magnetometers is at major airports across the country, and I doubt that TSA would volunteer this information.

Based solely on my experience at two airports this week, and given the short time frame before the Thanksgiving travel rush, I don’t believe that TSA will be able to, or even wants to, put their draconian screening agenda in place before next week. This could be in response to the public outcry, or perhaps to try to deflate protests such as National Opt Out Day.

It’s quite possible that additional advanced scanners could be deployed before the Christmas holidays; more reason for those who oppose their use and/or the more aggressive pat-downs to maintain due diligence. So far, it appears that there is
plenty of hue and cry despite polls that say otherwise. But like anything that catches the attention of a fickle 24-hour news cycle, staying power without provocative storytelling or visuals can be a hard thing to come by.

I have personally struggled with the concept and execution of this program, especially when I read internationally recognized security experts panning the TSA’s efforts. However, I am equally concerned with surreptitious activities that could be much more damaging to the fabric of the American way of life than backscatter X-Rays or a screener getting a little too familiar with your private parts.

While the egregious nature of these gropings in the name of security theater seem to be easily monitored, documented, and reported, increased profiling, data mining, and threat assessment activities are not. Many of the media articles regarding the TSA controversy reference the airport security procedures utilized by El Al, the Israeli national airline, which include interviewing every passenger. The airline suggests that passengers arrive three hours before departure.

Several commenters have favored this type of interpersonal screening over a technology-based effort that seemingly has to change with every new way that someone tries to blow up a plane. On the other side of the equation, civil and religious liberties groups have concerns about profiling associated with this method of screening.

The recent debacle in Pennsylvania involving a private, US/Israeli-owned concern identifying lawful association and protest activity as “threats” further underscores the need for close regulation and monitoring of any activity of this type.

So it appears that we have a choice with how to deal with security while flying; endure scanning or search procedures that are intrusive and infringe on cultural and religious expectations for privacy and modesty, or allow unrestricted information gathering and possible profiling which can be used to gather and store information on the lawful activities of private citizens, whether or not it involves traveling by air.


Without assurances that constitutional protections are in place for the latter, I would prefer an occasional particle beam or grope than the unfettered expansion of a surveillance society.

I will have loved ones flying over the holidays; Evan will travel to see his aunt and uncle in Oklahoma over Thanksgiving, and Leslie and Gianna will be here for Christmas. I want to make sure they are protected by a system that is responsive, effective, and fair.

Enjoy your Thanksgiving week, wherever your travels may take you.
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This entry was posted in Aviation, Civil Liberties, Government, Public Safety, Travel. Bookmark the permalink.

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