Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Full-Body Scanners: Best use of money?

"What we want to do now is use (body scanners) as a standard measure for all flights to the United States," Dutch Justice Minister Hirsch Ballin told public television channel NOS (http://www.news24.com/Content/World/News/1073/7e2df3855b6c4039a1388402b50d87e8/30-12-2009-02-37/Body_scanners_for_US_flights). The belief of using body scanners would have detected the PETN that was hidden in Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's underwear. The discussion of using body scanners is heating up and even airports in the United States are getting ahead of the game. The Chicago O'Hare is looking to add full-body scanners in the first half of the year (http://www.suntimes.com/news/1964435,CST-NWS-scanners30.article). No one is making an argument that had a full-body scanner had been used on Abdulmutallab that the PETN would have been detected and prevented him from boarding the plane to Detroit.

The question before American's is how far we allow our personal privacy compromised for the sake of safety. Ed Yohnka the director of communications for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois said, "Because that intelligence was not acted upon, the best we can do is subject thousands and perhaps millions of Americans to a virtual strip search simply to getting on an airline flight? That doesn't make sense to me" in response to the knee-jerk reaction to adding full-body scanners to airports (http://www.suntimes.com/news/1964435,CST-NWS-scanners30.article). While comments were made yesterday on the blog entry "The 'system worked' or did it?" the question of costs/benefit were raised.

What is the cost/benefit of adding full-body scanners to airports? Are we making smart decisions with the money spent? Bruce Scheier, a long time critic of airport security practice and author of "Beyond Fear", warns that "we will waste hundreds of millions of dollars, that could be spent on investigation and intelligence, to force the terrorists to make minor changes in their tactics" (http://www.boston.com/business/technology/articles/2009/12/30/information_not_gadgets_seen_as_security_solution/). Instead adding additional high-tech technology, Andrew Thomas, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Transportation Security at the University of Akron, Ohio, backs up Scheier's assessment because "We need better [alignment of] databases. We need to make the watch list actually mean something." No one is arguing that the system failed but will installing full-body scanners be the end all solution to preventing terrorist plans to blow up airplanes?

My hope is that the TSA and other government agencies take a breath weigh the cost/benefit of any solution implemented. Our media and society is fixated on quick fixes rather than sustainable solutions. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, (R-Utah) said, "The big question to our country is how to balance the need for personal privacy with the safety and security needs of our country." Rep. Chaffetz sponsored a successful House bill that would make full-body scanners a secondary screening method as well as impose punishment upon government employees for sharing or copying images. But as well all know the terrorist will adapt their techniques to find ways to bypass our technology that is put in place. Rep. Chaffetz went on to say, "I don't think anybody needs to see my 8-year-old naked in order to secure that airplane" (www.startribune.com).

While on the surface I agree with Rep. Chaffetz but you just gave the terrorist their next mule to bypass our technology that is in place to keep us "safe". Would the money spent be better on intelligence to prevent the terrorist from reaching the airport, updating databases, educating airport personal on using the database, or to add full-body scanners to airports? The scanners emit low doses of X-ray and I believe there is a reason that lab techs leave the room when one is having a body part x-rayed. What future lawsuits will the TSA be setting themselves up from security workers that are repeatedly exposed to low doses of x-ray?