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A Times Editorial

Electronic strip search goes too far

Travelers to Tampa International Airport beware: In the not too distant future, you might be plucked out of a security line for an electronic strip search. In the name of aviation security, the government wants to look under your clothes.

It is a step that simply asks too much of the flying public.

TIA is expected to receive four new whole-body imaging machines from the Transportation Security Administration within the next month. The machines will scan travelers for hidden bombs and weapons, and the TSA says it hopes to be proficient in their use before the Super Bowl in Tampa next year.

The machines are desirable because they are able to detect plastic and ceramic weapons that are missed by metal detectors. But the trade-off is that the images show explicit details of your body shape and genitalia. They essentially grant a TSA agent a view of your nude body, albeit altered somewhat by hiding the face and making the monochromatic image look part tin-man.

What makes this most troubling is that the TSA intends to employ the system not just for people who raise reasonable suspicions, but on random travelers.

Using these invasive machines on people who fail the initial metal detector screening or who raise suspicions in other ways makes sense. But by using them as the first pass, the TSA is asking air travelers to offer up a peek at their nude bodies as a condition of air travel.

And we wonder about TSA's insistence that there won't be abuse. The agency says that travelers will be chosen for the body scans at random. Yet it is hard to imagine that with 120 machines at 24 airports, some bored security agents won't start picking out travelers with odd body shapes or those whose bodies might be particularly titillating to see, such as celebrities. Even if the person who does the picking isn't the one to see the pictures, this could be a danger.

Certainly a great deal of privacy has to be relinquished in the name of aviation security. Air travelers already endure long lines at screening points to have their luggage and persons examined. They remove shoes, belts, watches and jackets to pass through the detectors and know they will be inspected more closely if an agent thinks there's anything suspicious.

But an electronic strip search is a step too far, even if the traveler has the option of choosing a pat-down search, as the TSA claims. These machines should be used exclusively for travelers who raise objective and reasonable suspicion. The average air traveler should not have to worry about being part of a strip show masked as airport security.

Electronic strip search goes too far 09/01/08 [Last modified: Saturday, September 6, 2008 2:44pm]
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