Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Missing Element

Josh Marshal ponders why people are willing to
ethnically profile, do all sorts extra-judicial surveillance, maintain massive databases of hundreds of thousands of people who have some vague relationship to extremism, torture captives, condemn people to hours unable to go the bathroom on planes, even launch various foreign military adventures
while we hesitate to implement backscatter body scans
that might show a vague outline of boobs or penises (almost certainly no more than is exposed in most bathing suits)
and concludes,
It just tells me that at some level we're not really serious about this.
Really, though, the difference is obvious. With stuff that happens behind the scenes, we're comfortable assuming that it only happens to other people. Proponents of torture don't anticipate that they will ever be tortured. Proponents of racial profiling anticipate that it will only happen to other races - consider the recent spate of calls for the profiling of any person with an Islamic-sounding name, even though most made no similar demand for people with names like "José Padilla" and none that I know of made any such demand for people with names like "Richard Reid". The rule forbidding going to the bathroom on an airplane during the last hour of a flight - an idea that is unworkable (or potentially really messy) for people with certain medical conditions or for small children? It's already out the door. Now the decision is up to the discretion of the airlines.

It's simply another form of the anti-civil liberties retort, "If you're not breaking the law, you've got nothing to worry about" - which roughly translates to "If it's not happening to me, I don't care."

It should also be noted that the privacy technology for backscatter has improved, and will continue to improve, to the point that "nudity" is becoming a non-issue. Several years back, when I first heard about the use of this technology by the federal government, and the privacy issues it was raising, I asked, "Why not adjust the software to erase as much of the human body as possible - after all, you don't care about the body - just what's on it"? It took some time for others to hop on the clue bus, but that's the way the technology is heading. Note that the technology is anything but perfect - it won't see through fat folds, nor will it look inside body cavities - it's just another tool in passenger screening.


  1. Marshal is also assuming that the people who support torture etc. and the people who are angry about backscatter X-rays are fully overlapping sets.

    The NYT did an interesting piece on the UK's ubiquitous camera monitoring a few years ago. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that the bored young men who staff the security cameras find uses for those cameras, to the point that one of the security stations was plastered with what we would call 'downblouse' photos.

    But I'm sure the TSA would never abuse its authority or anything.

  2. Based upon all of the safeguards TSA is promising - the screener watching the video will be in another room, no line of sight to the person being scanned, obfuscation of the face, no printers, criminal prosecution of anybody who finds a way to take images out of the room... nobody's pretending that the screeners will be saints....


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