Terrorism, full-body scans and privacy in the digital age

I am reminded of the 2002 Spielberg movie “Minority Report” when I think of the digital age, terrorism and privacy concerns.  The movie is interesting not just for its Big Brother overtones, but also because of its prescience on technology (some of the technology used in the movie, like multi-touch screens, are now in use).

But, what struck me about the film was its treatment of two topics of huge importance today: state control and privacy in the digital age. The Sci-Fi movie centers on the-ends-justifies-the-means decision of the state to use foreknowledge of specific future crimes to reduce overall crime by 90%. It is also replete with some interesting situations that raise privacy concerns like the ability of advertisers to scan your retina to recognize you as you shop in order to target you for specific advertising.

It was with these troubling images in mind that I have been following the recent debates over full-body scanning which the failed Christmas Day bomber precipitated.

Below, the Wall Street Journal has an excellent video about the competing technologies now being debated.

But below are images of what can be produced by some of the technology now under consideration for installation country-wide.


Wired Magazine says of the privacy concerns that images like this engender:

TSA has worked with two basic technologies to upgrade its passenger screening systems. Millimeter-wave sensors emit radio frequencies, and measure the differences in radiated energy. The result is a detailed, 3-D image of the passenger that looks sort of like a photo negative.

The TSA currently has 40 of these machines installed at 19 airports. Six airports have a machine each for primary screening. The other 34 are used for follow-up searches at 13 airports. The agency handed out a $25 million contract to Rapiscan Security Systems in October for 30 more of the machines.

Similarly, backscatter x-ray scanners send out low-intensity beams, and watch how the x-ray photons get reflected back. (Old-school machines simply sent the x-ray through the object.) “Elements with lower atomic numbers (fewer protons) on the periodic table scatter X-ray photons very powerfully, while elements located farther down on the periodic table tend to absorb more photons than they scatter.

Most organics are located closer to the start of the periodic table. So backscatter systems are very good at imaging organic material — much better than dual-energy systems.

They easily pick up the scatter patterns of drugs and explosives and body parts,” notes one helpful description. TSA has ordered 150 backscatter units, after 46 of the sensors were used at 23 airports in a pilot project.

But it’s unclear how far the TSA will be allowed to go in deploying these systems. Because the same technology that allows the scanners to find explosive underwear can also provide some rather revealing glimpses of passengers’ bodies.

The agency says there’s no privacy problem. “Facial features” (and, presumably, other body parts) “are blurred when our officers see the images,” the TSA insists. Nor will the agency “keep, store or transmit images. Once deleted, they are gone forever…. For additional privacy, the officer viewing the image is in a separate room and will never see the passenger, and the officer attending to the passenger will never see the image.”

This is not very convincing, is it? In the digital age, pictures can easily be transmitted to other locations at a moment’s notice.  The full-body scan dilemma is headed in this direction.  The Obama Administration, attacked as weak on national defense, has decided to show its mettle. When fear is one’s over-riding concern, other considerations go out the window. So, the Obama Administration is likely to take an ends-justifies-the-means decision to install these machines and their graphically revealing images.  No doubt, these images will leak onto the Internet. After all, there are going to be hundreds of machines, handled by thousands of TSA employees, looking at millions of photos. How many TSA employees might feel tempted to upload to a private source the full-body scan they have just taken of their favorite celebrity? And there are scores of reports of top secret Government documents being left on trains, lost on the street, or lost with a laptop. The same will happen with these images.

The case of Nikki Catsouras comes to mind here. The young woman died in a horrific car accident. Wikipedia says:

According to Newsweek, the Catsouras "accident was so gruesome the coroner wouldn’t allow her parents to identify their daughter’s body." However, photographs of the scene of Catsouras’ death were taken by California Highway Patrol (CHP) officers as part of standard fatal vehicle accident procedures. These photos were then forwarded to others within the Department, and then spread across the Internet.

Two CHP employees, Aaron Reich and Thomas O’Donnell, admitted to releasing the photos in violation of CHP policy. O’Donnell later stated in interviews that he only sent the photos to his own e-mail account for viewing at a later time, while Reich stated that he had forwarded the pictures to four other people. Catsouras’ parents soon discovered the photographs posted online.

Words cannot describe how horrible this must have been for the parents.

When leaks occur, what are the laws governing those leaks?  We are moving toward a world of significantly less information privacy. Recent comments by Mark Zuckerberg, founder of social media site Facebook, make this clear.

Zuckerberg offered roughly 8 sentences in response to Arrington’s question about where privacy was going on Facebook and around the web. The question was referencing the changes Facebook underwent last month. Your name, profile picture, gender, current city, networks, Friends List, and all the pages you subscribe to are now publicly available information on Facebook. This means everyone on the web can see it; it is searchable.

That’s where we’re headed online, and with full-body scans coming to an airport near you, expect to see these images popping up online in the not too distant future. We are fast heading to a “Minority Report” kind of world.


Underwear Bomber Renews Calls for ‘Naked Scanners’ – Wired

Nikki Catsouras photographs controversy – Wikipedia

Facebook’s Zuckerberg Says The Age of Privacy is Over – ReadWriteWeb

TSA Pressed on Full-Body Scans Despite Concerns – WSJ.com

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