Two kinds of airport security scanners are in the news this week, probably due to the upcoming holiday travel season. One uses x-rays to see through passengers’ clothes, another uses millimeter wave radiation (who knows? I’m a Political scientist, not a physicist) to produce an image. This story about improperly stored images suggests that the millimeter wave machines don’t provide an image that is all that detailed. The x-ray backscatter scanners leave little to the imagination and possibly create a cancer risk, especially for pilots and flight attendants who will be scanned almost every day. Many people have raised concerns about privacy, and the fact that 100 images were just published by Gizmodo suggests that some of these concerns are real. However, recent surveys show that about 80% of Americans favor the use of these scanners (but click through to the link to see why this number may not tell us much about how people really feel about this issue). There is a campaign (started by one guy, but it seems to be getting some attention) for passengers to protest the scanners next week on November 24, one of the busiest travel days of the year, by requesting a pat-down search as an alternative to the body scanner.
How does all of this relate to the idea of the national security state that we have been discussing in class? Why might people seem to be so willing to accept torture of prisoners and extensive warrantless surveillance of phone, internet, and library records and yet be so strongly opposed to a full body scan at the airport? What purpose do the scans serve? Are these scans really about intercepting underpants bombs, or do they serve some other, less obvious purpose? Does the discussion of torture in the readings we are doing this week tell us anything about why people might be more offended by an intrusion into their bodily privacy than they are by intrusions into their mental or emotional privacy? Which is more important to protect with privacy – the content of one’s thoughts (which is affected by surveillance of one’s phone and internet interactions with other people) or the shape of one’s body in a brief scan at the airport? Are there other factors which suggest different treatment for these two kinds of privacy, or are all these kinds of surveillance related to each other?
Update: The New York Times has a good piece on legal issues (primarily 4th amendment) related to scans and to the pat down searches that some have to undergo if the scanner flags things like, for instance, a $20 bill or a tissue.