TSA’s New Screening Policies Pose Threat to Civil Liberties

As the height of this year’s holiday travel season approaches, airport crowding may be the least of the average traveler’s worries. Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) controversial full body scanner machines, already in use at 70 airports nation-wide despite their debatable effectiveness, and invasive pat-down searches routinely subject travelers to discomfort and humiliation.

According to TSA’s guidelines, “imaging technology screening [full body scans] is optional for all passengers. Passengers who do not wish to receive imagining technology screening will receive alternate screening, including a pat-down.”

However, due to a recent change in TSA policy, these pat-downs have become more invasive. According to an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) news release entitled “TSA Pat-Down Search Abuse,” “screeners are now authorized to use the front of their hands and to touch areas around breasts and groins.”

Although TSA has stated that passengers “have the right to request the pat-down be conducted in a private room and to have the pat-down witnessed by a person of [their] choice,” in the rush of crowded airport security areas, requests for privacy may go unfulfilled.

Pat down horror stories are numerous, one more shocking than the next: a young boy was forced to take his shirt off during a pat down; bladder cancer survivor Thomas Sawyer was left “crying, humiliated, and covered in his own urine” after TSA agents broke his urostomy bag; breast cancer survivor Cathy Bossi was forced to show her prosthetic breast during a pat down; during the course of a pat down, a TSA employee felt inside of Carolyn Durand’s underwear; after clearing a metal detector, Gurdeep Singh, a Sikh man, was forced to remove his turban, despite the fact that taking off a turban and allowing others to touch it are considered disrespectful according to the Sikh tradition; a TSA employee continued to pat down a three-year old girl, ignoring her screams of “Stop touching me!” And these stories are just the ones that have attracted widespread media attention.

Even by passengers without horror stories, TSA pat downs have been consistently described as “invasive” and “uncomfortable,” with some travelers characterizing their experience as “sexual assault.” Despite the fact that TSA’s Office of Civil Right and Liberties’ Mission of the External Compliance and Outreach Division has been created to “ensure that the civil rights and liberties of the traveling public are respected throughout screening processes,” scanning and pat down procedures routinely compromise passengers’ right to privacy and their Fourth Amendment protection from unreasonable searches and seizures.

One advocacy group, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, has already filed a lawsuit against TSA, claiming that its search techniques are unconstitutional. In the past, courts evaluating airport screening technology have placed great importance on the government’s interest in national security. Specifically, the Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit has ruled that “a particular airport security screening search is constitutionally reasonable provided that ‘it’s no more extensive nor intensive than necessary,’ in light of the current technology, to detect the presence of weapons or explosives.”

However, Gary Fielder, who recently filed a lawsuit against TSA in the U.S. District Court in Denver, claims that search procedures are unreasonably extensive and more intensive than necessary, especially considering the fact that no American has ever been accused of threatening commercial airliners with explosives.

Like many things in life, successfully weighing the grave importance of national security against the risk of infringing on civil liberties is about balance. TSA should in no way compromise counterterrorism efforts, but it is in the best interest of the Administration to implement policies that do not subject innocent Americans to humiliating and degrading treatment. For what is the benefit of such invasive technologies if, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, approximately 32 percent of Americans object to full body scans and 50 percent of Americans object to the pat down alternative?

Especially after 9/11, to a certain extent, civil rights and liberties have been slowly eroded, and such erosion takes place on a slippery slope. In a time of such grave and consistent threats to national security, the last thing that we want is to turn against the core American value of liberty. We turn a blind eye on this value at the risk of giving the terrorists exactly what they want. What is this nation if it is not one of freedom? After all, in the words of the ACLU, “traveling shouldn’t mean checking your rights when you’re checking your luggage.”

Take Action:

  • Visit the ACLU’s website and sign a petition to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano.
  • Although relatively few people participated in National Opt-Out Day on November 24th, if TSA’s full body scan makes you uncomfortable, opt out.
  • Don Cargo Collective’s 4th Amendment Wear, including shirts, bras, underwear, and socks “for when unwarranted searches go too far.”
Sara Birkenthal is a senior at CMC majoring in International Relations and Middle East Studies.

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