The naked truth about scanners: They're necessary

Thursday, November 18, 2010; 8:39 PM

JOHN TYNER has become Exhibit A for the alleged outrages of new aviation screening techniques. The 31-year-old California man never made his flight out of San Diego's airport last weekend after he refused to undergo a full-body scan. The new technology - known as advanced imaging technology - can "see" through clothing and alert security officials to items that may have gone unnoticed by more traditional screening methods. The machines were deployed in large numbers after an al-Qaeda operative tried to bring down an airliner last Christmas with a bomb sewn into his underwear.

Mr. Tyner's decision to opt out of the scanner triggered a mandatory, police-style pat-down - a fate that awaits anyone who makes the same choice. As a Transportation Security Administration employee explained the pat-down procedure, Mr. Tyner told the officer, "I'll have you arrested if you touch my junk." He was not talking about his carry-on luggage. A recording of the encounter has gone viral on the Internet.

Mr. Tyner is not alone in objecting to the new security regime. A public interest group has filed a federal lawsuit arguing that full-body scans violate passengers' constitutional right against unreasonable searches and seizures. Some critics, who call the new scans the equivalent of virtual strip searches, are calling for passengers to opt out of the full-body scanners next Wednesday - the day before Thanksgiving and often one of the busiest travel days of the year. The objections are as misguided as they are myopic.

Some 385 full-body scanners are in use at 65 airports; these airports also continue to rely heavily on metal detectors. Scanners produce a computer-generated image that shows the contours of a body, including the outlines of breasts and buttocks, for example. But these images are not photographs that realistically depict a person's likeness; the subject's face is also blurred or obscured. A TSA spokeswoman said that the scanners used at U.S. airports are programmed to block images from being stored or printed. (A different brand and type of scanner was involved in a widely discussed incident in Florida in which courthouse marshals stored some 35,000 images.)

Congress and the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general should monitor the use of scanners to guard against privacy breaches. But concerns over privacy should not trump the legitimate role of scanners in protecting the flying public, particularly in light of al-Qaeda's continuing interest in targeting commercial flights.

No technology is foolproof; intelligence, traditional law enforcement and tips will continue to play leading roles in disrupting attacks. But the government would be irresponsible not to employ all reasonable means - and all available technology - to protect the lives of innocent people.

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