Why the illusion of safety may be more important
By Sam McCann
The Department of Homeland Security’s latest creation sounds like it was ripped straight from an Orwellian novel: After a failed plane bombing Christmas Day, the government debuted a device that virtually strip-searches citizens when they arrive at the airport. Civil liberty advocates are up in arms about the invasion of privacy. Critics claim the scanners don’t even do their job properly. But here’s the secret no one’s talking about: None of it matters. In the world of aviation security, perception trumps all. As long as we feel safer, it doesn’t matter if the scanners actually slow down terrorists at all.
According to a USA Today/Gallup poll, 84 percent of Americans believe that full-body scanners will prevent terrorists from smuggling bombs onboard planes. Whether they actually do or not depends upon whom you trust.
The effectiveness of full-body scanners has been at the center of public debate since Jan. 4, when TSA announced it would expand the use of the devices in airports across the country. The decision came just days after a Nigerian man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, tried to blow up a plane on its way to Detroit from Amsterdam. He apparently smuggled explosives past security by sewing bomb components to his underwear; now, TSA agents virtually strip down passengers at 19 airports every day, and that number continues to grow.
Scott Johnson, General Manager of Field Operations for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and his colleagues assert that the security benefits are well worth sacrificing some of our privacy. It’s not a perfect solution, but another layer of security.
“We wouldn’t be putting in technology if we weren’t comfortable with the safety aspect of it, and that the technology would work,” he said.
Not so, says Jay Stanley, public education director for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Technology and Liberty Program.
“Many people seemed to assume that [the scanners] were some sort of magic bullet that would have prevented [the Christmas Day] attack, and that is very far from clear,” Stanley said. “They’re very invasive of privacy, they can view very intimate details of the human body, and the benefits don’t justify that kind of invasion.”
Plus, the devices would have to be in every airport in the country—even the world—in order to effectively stop an identical attack, he said.
The privacy risks are glaring. The thought of stepping through a scan with your entire body on display is undeniably frightening. Yet TSA assures its passengers that it has done everything it can to protect anonymity.
The system currently funnels passengers through the machines one by one, aided by a security agent. That agent never sees the image generated by the scanner. Instead, another employee mans a computer in a separate room, checks for hidden weapons and then communicates with the other guard through a wireless headset. The person who reviews the images is not allowed a camera or camera phone in the room, and the computer that displays the image can’t save, transmit, or print the pictures. The computer blurs facial features to prevent the passenger from being identified.
According to Johnson, TSA carefully implemented the protocol over the course of years; it wasn’t hastily thrown together in the wake of the Christmas day attack.
“These privacy issues were put into place before we even deployed advanced imaging technology. This wasn’t something new that just popped up in December,” he said.
He’s confident that the system’s design means passengers have little to worry about. Stanley, on the other hand, is skeptical.
“I don’t have a lot of faith that the integrity of these systems will be maintained over time,” he said. “Our experience is that when the government introduces new privacy-invasive technology, they come wrapped in all kinds of promises and protections which unravel over time.”
And what about religious objections? Islamic scholars say the scanners violate the teachings of the Quran. TSA contends it provides options for individuals who object to the new methods, offering “an equal level of screening… and a pat down procedure.” In pilot programs designed to test the devices, the agency claims less than 2 percent of individuals chose the alternative methods.
So far, the public debate on the issue has centered on security versus privacy. Certainly, the primary cost of the technology must be paid in passengers’ rights, but the new devices are also setting the taxpayer out a cool $1 billion. That’s a staggering number, out of context.
A study conducted by the University of Newcastle in Australia reveals that for every life saved by American airport security, taxpayers spend $180 million. The study says the average cost per life saved by other federal programs is far less. The U.S. Department of Transportation spends about $3 million per life saved, and other agencies adopt a figure somewhere between $1 million and $10 million dollars. This would seem to indicate the TSA fails the cost/benefit analysis miserably. The money TSA spends to protect the public would seem to save far more lives if it were spent on, say, cancer research.
But that overlooks the true purpose of airport security: perception. The government wants us to feel safer so we continue to fly, continue to spend money and continue to trust it. If these scanners happen to directly save a few lives, it’s just gravy, but their value lies in the fact that 84 percent of Americans now feel more secure.
The headquarters of the Transportation Security Administration isn’t like other government offices. While it’s just a couple miles outside Washington, D.C., it seems a world apart from the regal architecture of Pennsylvania Avenue or even the stern walls of the neighboring Pentagon. But the innocuous 12-story buildings sit in exactly the right place, just an exit past Ronald Reagan National Airport and directly across from one of the largest malls in the entire metro region. Hundreds of shoppers pass by on their way to the upscale stores on the other side of the street, which suits TSA nicely; its policies affect commerce as much as security.
“Get down to Disney World in Florida,” former President Bush said, not long after the 9/11 attacks. “Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.” The message seems innocent, but shows that the true impact of terrorism is not lives lost but behavior changed. Counterterrorism, therefore, is designed to maintain a sense of security, not save lives.
Adam Rose of the Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events at University of Southern California places the amount of money lost in the wake of 9/11 significantly higher than the commonly accepted figure of $25 billion. He argues that the public’s fear of flying cut into not only airfare, but tourism and hotel revenue as well, slicing $85 billion out of the U.S. economy. The AMEX index of airline stocks alone fell 40.1 percent, and many airlines needed government bailouts to stay afloat. By at least creating the illusion of increased safety, the TSA is able to minimize similar shockwaves in the aftermath of other attacks.
And from the looks of it, the scanners are a runaway success in this regard. According to CNN, airline stocks fell only 1.7 percent on Dec. 26 and fully rebounded by the time the TSA announced the expansion of full-body scanners. The relative stability is at least partially due to the perceived security benefits of the devices.
9/11 changed a lot more than our spending habits, though. It’s impossible to evaluate terrorist attacks and counterterrorism techniques in terms of economic impact alone. Recessions come and go, but we’re still grappling with the most profound reverberation of the attacks: the war in Iraq.
Fear permeated America after 9/11. The assault had so badly shaken the American people’s confidence that they were running to their government, refusing to consider the implications of the deadly attacks. Journalists who asked “why?” were blacklisted, and the public generally accepted the administration’s version of events. Bush told the American people the reason behind the attacks was that “they hate our freedoms—our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble,” and he went virtually unquestioned.
Almost immediately, the administration went after our civil liberties. The Patriot Act, which greatly expanded the executive branch’s ability to invade the public’s privacy while simultaneously limiting judicial oversight, saw the American people willingly surrender their rights out of fear. The law, which remains in place today, stomped on our civil liberties far more than any kind of airport security.
That state of acceptance generated by fear of further attack also allowed the Bush administration to systematically tie 9/11 to Iraq and justify an invasion when in reality no link existed. Bush himself claimed that Mohamed Atta, the lead hijacker, “met with an Iraqi intelligence official to plot the attacks,” even though the 9/11 Commission concluded that no such meeting had taken place. In January 2004, Paul O’Neil, Bush’s former treasury secretary came forward to present evidence that the president wanted to invade Iraq more than eight months before the towers fell. Nevertheless, the American people bought into Bush’s distorted logic out of fear.
Authorities say 2,973 people died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The number of American soldiers dead in Iraq hovers around 5,000. Iraq Body Count, a group that tallies the approximate number of deaths using news reports, says approximately 100,000 Iraqi civilians have died violently since the US-led invasion.
That number might be zero had the American people not been scared.
What does this mean for the new scanners?
Since the TSA’s job is to counteract the effects of terrorism, it must fight fear over all else. And that means our current national dialogue is flawed; it matters relatively little how many people the new scanners save. It doesn’t even matter if the government thinks only in terms of economic benefits. What really matters is that 84 percent of people feel safer with the scanners in place.
So then the question becomes: is a public less likely to approve of an unjust war and wiretapped phones worth a billion dollars and blurry naked images at airports?
I certainly think so.
Editor’s note: The author’s father works for the Transportation Security Administration.
Sam McCann is a sophomore journalism major who wants you to scan his body. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.