Friday, November 26, 2004

Tis the season to be..... felt up at the airport? 

At least one blogworthy story is making the rounds on what's always a slow news week: the TSA's new screening policy. Put in place after two Chechen women were believed to have blown up those Russian airliners over the summer, the policy allows screeners to pat-down airline passengers. These pat-downs can include "private areas." When touching these areas, the screeners must use only the backs of their hands. Men must be searched by men, and women by women (hey, that's gay screening! Someone alert the Homophobe in Chief!!)

Anyway, mostly women are getting searched. Complaints that the searches are invasive and humiliating are coming in from some of the usual places -- the ACLU and a famous person -- and some unusual places, including the religious right.

There seem to be some obvious abuses going on, even if they're isolated. This account (in the right-wing Washington Times, no less) cites Reagan National TSA screeners who say women were being "selected for private screening based on breast-size and strip-searched." That's just horrendous, and those evildoers need to be smoked out of their holes and brought to justice. The article also says the Christian Broadcasting Network did a story on the searches, quoting a woman who thought they were so offensive that she refused to board her plane.

On the other hand: while we may have a wide range of people complaining, there don't seem to be too many of them. The TSA says it's getting several dozen complaints a week. Considering that they say around 2 million people are patted down every week, that's certainly not a lot.

Every privacy issue in this age of terrorism is a trade-off, and I think about them on a case-by-case basis. Assuming the TSA's complaint estimates are true, that probably means the searches are generally being handled tactfully, and that people accept this particular trade-off. But that alone does not mean they should be allowed. The searches shouldn't be permitted if they're not accomplishing anything -- if they're just another example of chipping away at civil liberties for no good reason. My first instinct is that the new policy is just another pathetic attempt to figure out what Al Qaeda will do next by looking at what some terrorist, somewhere, did last.

In all, I think the general lack of a furor indicates this is not the worst privacy violation ever (except the "bad apples," who must be eliminated). But the burden is on the TSA to prove it's a necessary technique -- and not just another attempt by the Bush Administration to make it seem like they're "on the case" while they consistently ignore ticking time bombs like ports and chemical plants.

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