Delicate Balance: Airline Security vs. Personal Privacy

Imaging Technology Could Make Passengers Safer but at What Cost?


Dec. 28, 2009 —

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said today the country "can't be static" when it comes to protecting travelers from attacks such as the attempted bombing of a Christmas Day flight, but some new security measures are raising questions about the delicate balance between safety and personal privacy.

"[The attack] is certainly not something we want to have happen again," Napolitano told "Good Morning America."

"That's why we're looking at that technology, why we're employing new technology. ... This is an ever-changing environment we're dealing with. We can't be static."

Napolitano's comments came days after a Nigerian man was arrested for igniting a small explosion on a Northwest Airline flight bound for Detroit Friday. The man, 23-year-old Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, allegedly sneaked the explosives through security in his underwear.

The incident prompted the Transportation Security Administration to announce heightened security guidelines for passengers Sunday that included more full-body pat downs, secondary screenings and additional rules onboard the plane.

Click here to see the TSA's new guidelines for passengers.

While the new measures could be a headache for the millions of expected travelers this holiday season, new body-imaging scanners that are already in some airports continue to draw criticism from those who believe the detailed scans are an invasion of privacy.

Sacrificing Privacy for Security?

Napolitano said officials are working "at lightning speed" to integrate new technology in the battle for airport security. As part of that initiative, the TSA previously ordered 150 new full-body scanners that, unlike metal detectors, scan for a range of substances and produce a detailed scan of the passenger's body.

While the Constitution protects the people from "unreasonable searches," some experts are debating where to draw the line. The devices are designed to pick up illicit and potentially dangerous materials but they also show private details of a traveler's body such as breast implants or prosthetic devices.

'Naked Scanners' Reveal Too Much?

The TSA's Web site says the devices "screen passengers for a wide range of threats while maintaining passenger privacy" but some critics say the "naked scanners" go too far.

"It's very intrusive and some people think it invades their privacy," counterterrorism expert Richard Clarke told "Good Morning America" today. "[But] if we had these scanners at all screening posts, we may have been able to stop this [Christmas Day bombing attempt]."

Rapiscan, which makes the full-body imaging device Secure 1000 Single Pose, says its machine can "detect organic and inorganic threats, metals and non-metallic objects," according to the company Web site

The machine blurs certain parts of the traveler's body but not enough so that someone could hide an object in the area, Rapiscan's Jonathan Fleming said.

The scanners cannot, however, pick up anything concealed inside the body of a traveler.

Critics are also weary of what happens to the images until the government clarifies what would be done with them after passengers are screened.

Congress has banned the mandatory use of these machines until the Department of Homeland Security addresses the privacy concerns.

But to former DHS official Stewart Baker, the winner of the privacy vs. safety battle is clear.

"Given the choice between losing my privacy, some of it, and losing my life or losing someone I love, I'm going to choose to lose some privacy," Baker said.

The devices are already in place in some airports and there are some in Amsterdam where Abdulmutallab allegedly sneaked the explosives through security, but it is unclear whether Abdulmutallab went through them.

Racial Profiling Concerns Raised

Two days after the alleged Christmas Day bombing attack, a second flight bound for Detroit was the center of another bomb scare when a man from Nigeria refused to leave the lavatory and then became verbally abusive to the crew.

After investigators detained the man and executed a thorough search of the plane and all the luggage on board, they determined the man had been suffering from food poisoning.

Also, two Middle Eastern men were removed from a flight in Phoenix Saturday and were questioned by the FBI for talking "suspiciously" in a foreign language, ABC News' Phoenix affiliate ABC15 reported.

The two men were reportedly watching "The Kingdom" on a portable DVD player while talking and a female passenger, who thought this suspicious, reported the men to the flight crew. The movie is about the bombing of a U.S. facility in the Middle East.

The men were fully cooperative and the FBI determined they had done nothing wrong.

Following that incident, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations expressed concerns about racial profiling.

"While everyone supports robust airline security measures, racial and religious profiling are, in fact, counterproductive and can lead to a climate of insecurity and fear," said Ibrahim Hooper, the group's communications director.

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