WITH many Muslim Americans leaving the US to perform Umrah and visit the Two Holy Mosques during the holy month of Ramadan, the introduction of full body scanners by the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in at least 10 of the country’s major airports has advocacy groups and Islamic civil rights organizations up in arms.
According to a TSA official, the backscatters, which bounce harmless “millimeter waves” off the bodies of passengers as a secondary security measure, will replace metal detectors in at least 2,000 of the nation’s airports in the near future. The body scanners have been deemed unconstitutional and an invasion of privacy due to the fact that the machines show what many civil rights groups say are graphic and detailed images of air passengers bodies and intimate body parts including medical enhancements, all for the sake of national security.
The controversy began to heat up when scanners were introduced in airports in Los Angeles, Baltimore, Denver, Albuquerque, New York’s Kennedy Airport, Dallas, Detroit, Las Vegas and Miami over the last few months following the launch of the machines in Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International Airport early last year.
Director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Technology and Liberty project, Barry Steinhardt, expressed his views on the scanners in a statement saying, “the TSA’s announcement, as reported, that it will be expanding the use of whole body scanning machines to 10 airports, is a disappointing confirmation of our warnings against the expansion of this “virtual strip search.”
“Body scanners produce graphic images of travelers’ bodies and are an assault on their essential dignity. The safeguards announced by the TSA do not convince us that the technology is acceptable, and we question the supposed voluntary nature of these scanners. Ultimately, we question whether security value of these scanners is proportional to the cost to flyers’ dignity and privacy, and whether they are the right priority for TSA,” he added.
The ACLU has also said that, “the degree of examination amounts to an assault of personal privacy that citizens in a free nation should not have to tolerate and that such a examination should never be a pre-requisite to boarding a plane.”
The group also called for the screening to be used in place of an intrusive search, such as body cavity search, when there is probable cause for a sufficient search and not as a secondary security measure in which passengers are chosen at random.
However, the TSA Contact Center in Washington D.C. when contacted by Arab News defended the use of the scanners in a statement, “ ongoing threats to aviation security require that certain security measures be undertaken and that whole body images provides TSA with a means of detecting a wide variety of threats, including suicide vests and other Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) that are hidden under an individual’s clothing and that may not be detected during metal detection screening.
TSA continued that “they are sensitive to passengers’ concerns about protecting their privacy as it relates to the security screening process, and in particular the use of whole body imaging technology.”
The TSA also said that due to religious concerns, passengers who have been identified for screening with whole body imaging can opt to visit a private area and be “patted- down” by a same gender security official instead, they also added that the TSA is also examining operational issues associated with technology, including efficiency, privacy considerations, training, safety of use and perceptions by the traveling public.
“The TSA has established rigorous controls to ensure privacy during whole body imaging screening, continued the statement adding that the Transportation Security Officer (TSO) attending the passenger will not view the image instead allowing a second TSO officer to view the image in a remote location.” They also stated that the facial images had been blurred in order to make passengers even more unrecognizable as an effort of solving privacy concerns.
And that no cameras, cellular telephones, or other devices capable of capturing images are permitted in the image viewing area and the image cannot be stored, transmitted, or printed and is permanently deleted after each passenger has been screened.
“We have worked very hard to address privacy concerns while testing whole body imaging technology. We believe that whole body imaging technology will be an effective tool in detecting terrorist threats. We look forward to continued public dialogue as we assess the effectiveness of the technology in the airport setting,” the TSA concluded.
However, the ACLU has argued that the blurring of faces and deleting of images is merely a software fix that could be undone as easily as it is applied and that obscuring the faces of air passengers does not hide the fact that the rest of the body will be vividly displayed and added that “unfortunately the US government’s record of safeguarding private information is not great,” Christina Abraham, civil rights director, Council on American- Islamic Relations (CAIR)-Illinois also agreed saying that even though the scanners are being used as a secondary screening measure and that passengers who are selected for secondary scanning are given the option of a “pat-down” by an officer the fact still remains that the body scanner creates a virtual image of a person’s unclothed body and although the images are not stored anywhere, they are viewed by at least one TSA officer.
Offering her personal opinion on the use of the scanner, Abrahim said, “As a Muslim, this scanner-especially the fact that it is not required that an officer of the same gender view the image-is problematic. More importantly, however, we believe that this violates every American’s right to privacy.
Under US law, for the government to be able to conduct a strip search of a person, they need to have probable cause that a person has a weapon or contraband hidden on their body. The body scanner allows law enforcement to view a person’s body without having to have a cause or even suspicion to believe that a person is carrying weapons or contraband,” she said. “We feel that this is a violation of a person’s 4th Amendment right to be protected from unreasonable searches and seizures.” Additionally, we are concerned that Muslims traveling may be subjected to secondary screenings more because of racial profiling,” Abraham said, adding that they receive regular complaints from Muslim travelers who believe they are being racially profiled or discriminated against by TSA officers.
“Typically these travelers say they were chosen for secondary screening because they look Muslim or have a Muslim name or they are unfairly searched and questioned upon returning from a flight for the same reason,” she said.
Abraham also said that her office hasn’t had any complaints about the security device but doesn’t believe that the TSA has gone out of their way to ensure that every person selected for secondary screening fully understands what going through a body scanner entails and reiterated that as of now travelers still have a choice of a pat-down for Americans and Muslim Americans who believe that the scanner violates their right to privacy. “
I think most Americans, and certainly most Muslim Americans, believe that the body scanner is too invasive when it is fully explained to them how it works. Therefore, it is our goal to make sure that the community is fully informed about the scanners so they can make an educated decision about it if they are chosen for secondary screening,” she concluded.