We’re back with the privacy debate on full body scanners. They’re coming to New York soon, and yesterday, CNET reported that a privacy advocate group in D.C. is taking the Transportation Security Administration to task (again) because full body scanners used by feds in other departments are contradicting the claims that TSA has made about the capabilities and uses of the scanners. One of their main arguments is that the scanners will immediately delete passengers’ images once they go through the system. But this is not so at a federal court house in Florida!
The U.S. Marshals Service admitted this week that it had saved tens of thousands of images recorded with a millimeter wave system at the security checkpoint of a single Florida courthouse.
The logic goes that if the Florida courthouse can do it, so will the TSA, and that claims of their capabilities and uses are too vague. But Sarah Horowitz of the TSA’s Office of Strategic Communications & Public Affairs told us, “TSA has not, will not, and the machines cannot store images of passengers at airports. The equipment sent by the manufacturer to airports cannot store, transmit, or print images, and there is no way for someone in the airport environment to put the machine into a mode to retain images.”
The big schtink with the U.S Marshals Service in Florida has nothing to do with them, apparently, and a different type of millimeter wave technology is used in courthouses than in airports. And even if images taken at airports by the TSA were stored, they can’t be traced back to any single person because they aren’t linked to identification and don’t distinguish facial patterns enough to make a person identifiable in the images. The machine is too busy detecting concealed weapons. Like this:
Sarah Horowitz of the TSA confirms that the body imagers have a privacy filter that blurs the the faces in the body scan images. Sure, TSA employees can see the junk of random passengers, but they can’t see the face to whom it belongs. So even if they are storing the images of your faceless naked body, no one will ever know it was you — as long as you aren’t carrying a concealed weapon. In which case, you’ve sort of given up your right to privacy anyway.
The rub, however: the TSA has confirmed that the body scanners have the capability of storing images during testing, but not otherwise.
As for the Florida courthouse, though “technologies vary,” they claim the machine they use is just as private as the TSA’s: “The system detects threats and contraband without displaying any personal anatomy.” Storing the images is the only big difference. And now, for better or worse, you know: If you’re conspiratorial, or image-conscious, or if this kind of thing bothers you, stay away from airports and Florida. And if it doesn’t, or if you’re an exhibitionist, you’re fine.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 5, 2010