Georgetown, ME 04548
November 12, 2010
Congresswoman Chellie Pingree
1037 Longworth HOB
Washington, DC 20515
Dear Ms. Pingree,
Besides being a Maine resident and business owner, I travel frequently for work. It is about that travel that I am writing you today.
As you are likely aware, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has begun the wide scale rollout of Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) machines, commonly referred to as “backscatter” devices because of the type of radiation they employ for their imaging. According to the TSA, there are 317 such devices in use at 65 airports nationwide.
That AIT is invasive is not in question. With it, every screened passenger is effectively strip searched, albeit digitally. The TSA claims that AIT both respects their privacy and is safe for passengers. It is possible that the TSA genuinely intends to respect our privacy. If the history of these devices at the Orlando Federal Courthouse is any guide, however, it would appear that it is not a matter of if these backscatter recorded images are captured and stored, but when. The associate general counsel for the US Federal Marshals Service has acknowledged storing “approximately 35,314 images” there.  According to the TSA itself, each of the 317 devices currently in use has the technical capability to store images. We are meant, rather, to be reassured by the following: “image storage functions will be disabled by the manufacturer before the devices are placed in an airport and will not have the capability to be activated by operators.”  Personally, I believe that if the capability is present, it will be used.
Even if we could be assured that it would be impossible to store AIT derived images, there are legitimate questions of safety involved. In April of this year, four professors from the University of California San Francisco submitted a letter to the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, Dr. John P. Holdren.  The purpose of the letter was to “call…attention to serious concerns about the potential health risks of the recently adopted whole body backscatter X-ray airport security scanners.” To his credit, Dr. Holdren responded to their concerns with a detailed reply.  Nowhere in his reply, however, is the concept of cumulative absorbtion addressed. For frequent travelers such as myself, this is a concern, as even minuscule doses of radiation can become problematic over time. Pilot unions for US Airways and American Airlines, in fact, are advising their members not to submit for backscatter screening.  Capt. Mike Cleary, president of the U.S. Airline Pilots Association – a 5,000 plus member union – communicated the following in a letter to members:
“Based on currently available medical information, USAPA has determined that frequent exposure to TSA-operated scanner devices may subject pilots to significant health risks.” At a minimum, then, there seems to be disagreement over the potential health implications of the devices.
Travelers are not required to submit to backscatter screening, of course. They are permitted to “opt out” of this process in favor of what the TSA is referring to as an “enhanced” pat-down.  Having been subjected to this while traveling on October 31st, I can personally attest that it is the definition of invasive. After loudly yelling “opt out,” TSA officers make physical contact with your genitals (and breasts, for females), and run their hands over your entire body. The press has documented numerous accounts where individuals were substantially affected by the experience, because the TSA officer was overly intrusive, because the experience reignites memories of past physical or sexual trauma, or simply because having a stranger intrusively touch you in a public venue is unpleasant.   The experience was humiliating for me, but I cannot imagine having to watch my wife be touched in such a manner.
If we assumed, counterfactually, that the backscatter devices and enhanced pat downs were both safe and non-intrusive, the question that would remain would be of expected benefit. The primary goal of both procedures, of course, is to prevent contraband from being smuggled onto an aircraft. As the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg notes, however, neither procedure is capable of detecting items stored in body cavities, nor those surgically implanted.   It is highly likely that would be terrorists will be aware of these limitations and will exploit them.
Security is, inevitably, a trade off. Historically, air travelers have traded inconvenience for improved but provably incomplete safety. With the introduction of the AIT devices and the rollout of the enhanced pat-down, travelers in the United States are for the first time being asked to trade their dignity, their peace of mind, and access to their person for what amounts to a marginal benefit to detection, one easily sidestepped by determined attackers.
This trade off is not worth it. I ask you to act to reverse the existing policies not for me, but for my wife. Current federal policy is forcing my wife and I to have to choose between having her irradiated and virtually stripped or touched in inappropriate ways by a stranger.
We all want to be safe while flying. It is time, however, for us to recognize that air travel, like any other means of transportation, is not now, nor ever will be, 100% safe. In spite of all of our best efforts. Given that, we should aim to keep travel a reasonable compromise between security and convenience.
This is the United States. We cannot and must not consent to being strip searched and physically handled simply to travel from one city to another. If we do that, and voluntarily surrender our dignity, those looking to inspire fear in us have accomplished their goal.
As someone who supported you on election day, I hope you can find time in your schedule to look into this important matter.