- The Washington Times - Friday, March 2, 2007

The Transportation Security Administration is testing, at Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix, an X-ray scanner that produces a nude image of passengers. This is to help detect terrorists.

The images are graphic, clear enough to make one blush. They amount to a strip search.

This brings up a question that society so far has failed to face explicitly: Are there any limits to the government’s powers of surveillance? Or to surveillance by private companies? If so, what are they? The technological capacity grows by leaps and bounds. The law isn’t keeping up.

We are not talking only about airports. What is done now at an airport will be seen as necessary at entrances to governmental buildings, train stations and stadiums. Since terrorism can occur almost anywhere, it will always serve as a justification.

The possibilities go beyond nude photography. I encounter research on such items as determination of a subject’s state of mind — angry, stressed, nervous, what have you — by various sorts of brain scan. This isn’t ready for prime time, but as years go by, the impossible merges into the improbable and then into working prototypes. Research is being done on computerized cameras to analyze gait and body language to detect suspicious people.

How much privacy, dignity and self-respect are we willing to give up to prevent how much terrorism?

When a woman goes through the scanner in Phoenix, she is on display for somebody, on a screen somewhere. We can pretend that TSA’s screeners are selfless, professional and dispassionate guardians of the public. In fact, they will be snickering at what they see.

Now, the TSA says it’s voluntary. Passengers who don’t pass the standard screening can choose between the new device or a pat-down search.

“It’s 100 percent voluntary, so if the passenger doesn’t feel comfortable with it, the passenger doesn’t have to go through it,” TSA spokesman Nico Melendez said.”

In short, you have the choice of being photographed nude or groped. Or, you can miss your flight. “Voluntary”?

There is no end to the capacity for technological intrusiveness. Commercial voice-recognition software, which turns spoken into printed English, is quite good nowadays. Monitoring e-mail on a massive scale is easy.

It used to be that when you returned to the U.S. from abroad, officials checked your passport to ensure that you were a citizen, and that was it. Now there’s a computer screen, which you are not allowed to see, that presumably has everything about you on it. Cell phones can be tracked geographically. License plates of cars can be read by cameras and their itineraries stored.

This is new, and it requires new thinking. In 1950, the computers and hard drives for electro-surveillance didn’t exist. In principle, nearly everyone is in favor of privacy. The problem is that technology has outrun law. We don’t know who has what right to engage in what kind of surveillance under what circumstances.

The police can watch you walking in the street. Can they use automated cameras to decide that you look guilty and then question you? Can department stores use X-ray strip searches to prevent shoplifting? Can they keep the images? Who insures compliance?

Being constantly watched, even with the best of intentions, changes the tenor of life. It is unnerving to think that one’s e-mail is being read somewhere, or to worry that a camera anywhere may judge your body language to be suspicious. We need to think about this.

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