With the start of the busiest air travel season just a little more than a week away, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has been under scrutiny following complaints that the federal government has taken airport security too far, from new intrusive body scans to intensified pat-downs.
Even pilot unions have protested against airport security body-scanner technology — said to be intrusive with radiation-based health concerns — and called the alternative pat-down method too invasive. The issue also made headlines last weekend when 31-year-old passenger John Tyner posted a video on YouTube that he captured with his cell phone recording an argument with a TSA screener.
"If you touch my junk, I'm going to have you arrested," Tyner told the screener. He was ultimately removed from the San Diego International Airport.
Air passengers have put up with increased security measures for several years now. First it was taking shoes off at the security line. Next was the removal of liquids from bags, followed by the removal of laptops for scanning. Now with body imaging and pat-downs, many passengers have reached a point where enough is enough, said Geoff Freeman, an executive vice president of the U.S. Travel Association, told TechNewsDaily.
"The post 9/11 environment is making the TSA's job in facilitating travel security extremely difficult," Freeman said.
"Given the way Congress responds to security instances, the TSA has put layer upon layer on security each year without removing the other layers. The build-up has become very burdensome and frustrating for travelers. We have received so many complaints from passengers — most of which are people just wanting to know if the TSA plans to make this process easier for everyone in the future."
There are two forms of technologies being used for airport security screenings. The DHS has been rolling out new backscatter advanced imaging technology (AIT) units — each one costing between $130,000 to $170,000 — to airports nationwide over the last year. The other technology, active millimeter wave systems, can penetrate clothing to reveal hidden threats, but are not thought to emit harmful radiation.
Backscatter technology, however, requires a passenger to stand in between two box panels as low-dose radiation is emitted to the body, mainly to the scalp, during its scan. The image is then sent to an agent in another room to protect the passenger’s privacy by ensuring the anonymity of the image. If a screening agent sees a threat, they can call another agent over to further inspect the image.
Many organizations are trying to fight the TSA's scanning procedures, including one called "national opt-out day." The online group is asking people to protest the use of the body-image scanners on Nov. 24, the day before Thanksgiving and one of the busiest travel days of the year.
"It's the day ordinary citizens stand up for their rights, stand up for liberty, and protest the federal government's desire to virtually strip us naked or submit to an 'enhanced pat-down' that touches people's breasts and genitals in an aggressive manner," according to a statement on OptOutDay.com.
"You should never have to explain to your children, 'Remember that no stranger can touch or see your private area, unless it's a government employee, then it's OK.'"
The goal of National Opt-Out Day is to send a message to lawmakers that people demand change: "We have a right to privacy and buying a plane ticket should not mean that we're guilty until proven innocent. This day is needed."
But if people do choose to opt out of the body-imaging screening process and go for the pat-down method, this could significantly affect the wait time in security lines. It might also set a dangerous precedent, John Pistole, head of TSA, said.
Pistole told the New York Times that a chaotic checkpoint could be a huge security problem. "If terrorists can anticipate that, it gives them an opportunity," he said. "And what would this do for travel plans for Thanksgiving? Are people going to miss flights because there are long backups, because other people are protesting?"
Meanwhile, legal action has also been taken. A public interest group filed a lawsuit against the federal government demanding the suspension of the full-body scanners.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) in Washington, D.C., which filed the lawsuit in July against the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Transportation Security Administration division, is aiming to suspend both backscatter and active millimeter wave technology until concerns about their privacy protection, health effects, religious freedom ramifications and effectiveness are addressed.
"It was only a matter of time before more people started to learn more about the technology," EPIC staff counsel Ginger McCall said. "Now that the public has read about it and gone through it, they are not happy. We’re not surprised that this sort of reaction is happening."
"If people participate in national opt-out day — and we believe there will be a significant number of those that will, especially from pilot unions, libertarian and civil liberties groups — it will have a profound effect on travel next week and send a real wake-up message to the TSA," McCall added.
The economy effect
Freeman of the U.S. Travel Association, an industry trade group, said airport security issues are causing a negative effect on the economy.
Travel is the gateway to commerce," Freeman said. "You can't talk about getting the economy on track while also implementing policies that discourage travel."
In fact, air travelers were so frustrated in 2008 that 41 million of them canceled their trips. This cost the economy a whopping $26 billion in losses, according to a survey from the U.S. Travel Association.
The report also found that 78 percent of air travelers believe the air travel system is either "broken" or in need of "moderate correction" and 51 percent of frequent fliers believe their time is not respected in the process.
Although many say that these types of security measures must be taken to ensure airline safety, others question whether these processes are actually working.
"You can argue that the government is simply putting a band-aid on a security system," Freeman said. "No one is stepping back and asking what is the best technology and solution to ensure traveler safety and how can it be done in a fluid manner. If our country can put a man on the moon, we should be able to figure out a way to put people through security effectively and comfortably. Our country hasn't done that yet."
Earlier this year, the U.S. Travel Association formed a Blue Ribbon Panel for Frictionless Security to create a vision for a more secure, efficient and customer-friendly air travel security screening process.
The group, which features prominent security experts — including Tom Ridge, former Secretary of Homeland Security; Robert Crandall, former CEO of American Airlines, and Jim Turner, former Democratic congressman and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee — expects to release a multiple-step plan in February that will detail how the TSA can improve security screening.
"In the meantime, the media attention about this issue will be very beneficial to the country in the long run," Freeman said.
"It will help the TSA re-evaluate and re-focus so things can get better. We just hope that some of these issues will be worked out by next week — it will be a great test to see what happens."
TSA spokeswoman Sari Koshetz told TechNewsDaily that the organization is doing everything it can to protect the safety of air travelers.
"We are frequently reminded that our enemy is creative and willing to go to great lengths to evade detection," Koshetz said. "TSA utilizes the latest intelligence to inform the deployment of new technology and procedures, like the pat down, in order to stay ahead of evolving threats."
"Administrator Pistole is committed to a risk-based, intelligence-driven approach to security and ordered a review of existing policies shortly after taking office," Koshetz added. "We look forward to further discussion with pilots on these important issues.”