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U.S.: Health and Privacy Concerns Dog Airport Body Scanners

NEW YORK, Nov 17 2010 (IPS) - Privacy advocates called on the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Tuesday to end its controversial new initiative of whole-body scans and enhanced pat-downs of airline passengers, calling the programme “dangerous to health, ineffective and unconstitutional”.

Led by consumer advocate Ralph Nader, a group of organisations held a telephone news conference to insist that the “strip-search” programme be suspended and turned over the Congress to investigate.

“The machines are ineffective, the pat-downs are too invasive, and the use of radioactive technology poses health risks,” Nader said, citing testimony from a number of physicians who agreed that radioactivity “could cause skin problems” and might pose a public health threat to passengers.

Nader said there is also the issue of how protective these TSA initiatives are. He pointed out that “passengers and crew of 17,000 business jets are not screened at all.”

“The TSA has no strategy. This new programme is a commercially driven, knee jerk reaction to the shoe bomber and the underpants bomber,” he said. “The programme should be ended and turned over to Congress.”

Two months after 19 jihadists hijacked airplanes and flew them into the World Trade Centre, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field in 2001, Richard Reid attempted to detonate explosives hidden in his sneakers on an American Airlines flight from Paris, France, to Miami, Florida. Passengers thwarted his plan, and the plane landed safely in Boston, Massachusetts.

And on Christmas Day 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a young Nigerian, tried to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, using explosives hidden in his underwear. He was thwarted by passengers and arrested when the plane landed safely in Detroit.

“What concerns us is the TSA’s secrecy – their obscurantist approach to government…not responding to members of congress, the press or the public,” Nader said.

In San Diego Monday, an airline ticket-holder declined to use the electronic body scanner and opted for a pat-down instead. The TSA inspector then explained the intimate anatomic details of the pat-down, at which point the would- be passenger threatened to sue if the TSA official touched his private parts. He was denied access to the aircraft and threatened with arrest and a civil fine.

Another press conference participant, Chip Pitts, a lecturer in law at Stanford University law school, talked about the ineffectiveness of the body scanning technology.

“Despite the secret, corrupt, and deceptive claims under which these machines have been sold by DHS, TSA, and their contract manufacturers, the body scanners don’t detect the sorts of plastic explosives that were their main justification,” he said. “They’re easily evaded by real terrorists even as they render everyone else a suspect, increasingly relegating the innocent to an unacceptable choice of a radiation scan, or a groping pat-down, or not flying at all.”

Other groups participating in the conference included the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), Flyers’, We Won’t, and the Libertarian Party.

Kate Hanni of Flyers’, which claims to have 30,000 members, asked, “Are we getting ahead of terrorists or merely reacting to recent events?”

We won’t is promoting a national opt-out day, Nov. 24, to encourage people to protest the TSA programme by not flying. Nov. 24 comes at the start of busiest travel season of the year.

EPIC has filed a lawsuit to suspend the body scanner programme, calling it “unlawful, invasive, and ineffective”. Opposition to the programme is growing. The Libertarian Party, the American Pilots Association, Airline CEOs, flyers rights organizations, religious groups, and others are calling for an end to invasive searches at airports.

Libertarian Party Chair Mark Hinkle said today, “The TSA should end the strip-search machine programme immediately. We’ve reached a point where our government has no qualms about humiliating us.”

The EPIC lawsuit challenges the unilateral decision of the TSA to make body scanners the primary screening technique in U.S. airports. Three frequent air travelers are joining EPIC in the lawsuit: security expert Bruce Schneier, human rights activist Chip Pitts, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations legal counsel Nadhira Al-Khalili.

The petitioners have brought claims under the Administrative Procedure Act, the Privacy Act, the Video Voyeurism Prevention Act, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and the Fourth Amendment. They are seeking the suspension of the body scanner programme.

In its brief, EPIC argues that the Department of Homeland Security “has initiated the most sweeping, the most invasive, and the most unaccountable suspicionless search of American travelers in history.”

EPIC further argues that the Transportation Security Administration “must comply with relevant law, and it must not be permitted to engage in such a fundamental change in agency practice without providing the public the opportunity to express its views.”

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