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Full-body scanners: Exposing issues of privacy, and body image

By Libby Copeland
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, December 22, 2010; 10:13 PM

We are more naked, as a nation, than we've ever been. We are forever baring our souls, revealing the mundane and the sacred. We are naked in our curiosity about the semi-famous and the strange, we are naked in our aspirations (to be semi-famous, even for something strange), we are naked online - or, at least, considerably more exposed than we tend to realize.

All of which may help explain why most Americans seem unconcerned about those full-body airport scanners, the ones that see under your clothes. In an existential sense, we are used to this sort of thing. Go on, take a gander, we seem to be saying. We have nothing to hide.

Christmas is approaching, and with it travel and more opportunities for Americans to be asked to pass through what the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) calls "advanced imaging technology" and what critics call "pornoscanners." If past - and polls - are prologue, most holiday travelers who come face-to-face with the full-body scanners will simply step in and raise their hands, as they appeared to do just before Thanksgiving, on what was supposed to be the big protest of National Opt-Out Day.

To understand why so many of us opt in when confronted by full-body scanners - 99 percent, according to Sterling Payne, a TSA spokeswoman - first consider why a vocal minority opts out.

"I simply do not trust the TSA to keep those images private," says Boston area columnist and TV commentator Michele McPhee, who in November chose one of those enhanced pat-downs over a full-body scanner at Logan International Airport. "The last thing I want is my naked image all over the place in Boston."

The fear of being exposed is a theme that comes up constantly in interviews with those suspicious of full-body scanners.

That's not the only thing they talk about, of course; they talk about government intrusion and constitutional rights, about health concerns over scanner radiation, about the ways in which they see airport security as reactive, ineffective. They talk about the building indignities of airplane travel.

They talk about control and the sense of having to choose between two unhappy options, the scanner or the pat-down. (Regarding the latter: "You probably could've sold this on the Internet as soft porn," says McPhee, who, to be fair, is known for her bombast. "It could've definitely been on Skinemax.")

But most of all they talk about a sense of privacy squandered, a sense of being vulnerable in deeply personal terms. They use the word "humiliating" a lot, and the word "dignity." Exposure is an elemental fear, after all, as anyone who has sweated through a naked dream can attest.

Rolando Negrin is the trump card for opt-outers - a lesson in what can go wrong with full-body scanners, not to mention confirmation of some fliers' worst suspicions about the professionalism of airport screeners. A TSA worker at Miami International Airport, Negrin went through one of the full-body imaging machines during a training session, according to a subsequent arrest report.

Afterward, the report stated,, "co-workers made fun of him on a daily basis" about the size of his manhood. Eventually, the report said, Negrin "could not take the jokes anymore and lost his mind."

He was arrested this spring for allegedly beating a colleague with a baton in a parking lot and forcing his victim to kneel down and apologize. The media coverage had its way with the story, with coy references to scanners being "good news for anti-terrorism" but "bad news for less-than-average men."

Negrin's public defender, Tara Kawass, said her client is charged with aggravated battery and could go to trial as soon as January. He has pleaded not guilty and didn't want to comment while his case is pending. Payne, the TSA spokeswoman, says "the two individuals directly involved" with the incident "are no longer with TSA."

Despite the TSA's assurances about advanced imaging technology - that the scanned images are blurred by a "privacy algorithm," that the images can't be leaked because they're automatically deleted by the machines after being evaluated remotely, that the officers evaluating them aren't allowed to bring cameras or cellphones that could reproduce the images - there are still, for some, lurking suspicions about what they call a virtual strip search.

It might be that even - or perhaps especially - in a confessional age, there is something alarming about being unclothed in public, even if it's only in a virtual sense, even if a stranger in a remote room is the only one privy to one's nakedness. If you go through one of the new scanners you are bargaining, giving up your privacy in exchange for security or expediency or other things. If one doesn't buy this premise, doesn't believe full-body scanners are a good bargain, then one is being exposed against one's will. And to be naked is to be unprepared and unprotected, to be uniquely defenseless against criticism and attack.

There is the fear of not being attractive or of being too attractive, of being ridiculed or ogled. There is the fear that all the things we do to smooth and minimize ourselves, all of the adornments that contribute to the formation of our public selves, are undone by a full-body scanner, that we will be seen in all our secret ugliness.

As the TSA adds more scanners, and more fliers come into contact with them, it seems unlikely the vocal minority that objects to them will disappear. On FlyerTalk's message boards, frequent fliers compile lists of which terminals at which airports have full-body scanners, the better to avoid them. "The sheep being herded to slaughter," one frequent poster writes of those who submit to the new technology.

Recently, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) introduced legislation that would make it illegal to record or distribute the images taken by the machines. Meanwhile, in a nod to modesty and privacy, the TSA is testing a type of software that would convert all scanner images to what TSA spokeswoman Payne calls "a standard generic figure," while still highlighting what the agency likes to call "anomalies."

You can see the opt-outers as cranky outliers or as the nation's conscience, and perhaps the truth is somewhere in between. Because even for the majority of people who don't agree with them, their protest should be instructive. It tells us a lot about how our culture's relationship with privacy has changed.

The use of technology to intrude on people's private lives in America isn't an invention of the 21st century, of course, or even of the 20th. Sarah Igo, a history professor at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, points to a crystallizing moment in 1890, when one of the first legal arguments was made in a law journal about the right to privacy. The threat? Newspapers and magazines printing paparazzi photos of socialites. Really.

We are in an age when technology's intrusions into privacy erupt in scandals every few months, if not more often. The uproars over Facebook's privacy protocols bear witness to this, as do the cases of alleged cyber-bullying over MySpace and Facebook, and - in the case of the suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi - webcam and Twitter. Loads of user names and passwords were recently compromised in the hack on Gawker Media. As Tiger Woods discovered, celebrity texts might as well be written on bathroom doors. And the ongoing WikiLeaks dumps of confidential diplomatic cables contribute to the sense that nothing is confidential anymore.

With each scandal there is outrage, to greater or lesser degrees. There are attempts to "draw a line in the sand," as Igo puts it, as with the Federal Trade Commission's proposal allowing consumers to opt out of having online advertisers track their browsing habits. Another recent victory for privacy: A federal appeals court ruled the government needs a warrant to gain access to e-mails stored by Internet service providers.

But the controversies tend to be the exceptions, the rulings tend to be reactive (and late), and the line tends to move in one direction. We have largely made peace with Facebook collecting information about us, with Amazon saving our credit card numbers.

More broadly, we have made peace with our confessional culture. If we are outwardly ambivalent that moments of deep personal anguish and light mundanity are processed into entertainment without much distinction on reality TV and YouTube, we nevertheless eagerly consume it all. We vote with links clicked and cookies accepted.

Even surveillance itself becomes titillation. As Hal Niedzviecki, a cultural commentator in Toronto and author of "The Peep Diaries," points out, the evening news features surveillance camera footage of bungled convenience store robberies. Dash-cam arrest videos show up online. Niedzviecki calls the current state of things "peep culture."

"Peep culture conditions us to want to use our privacy to achieve things," says Niedzviecki, who suggests this breeds a kind of passivity, a failure to ask questions. "It's not, 'Oh, no, no, you can't ask me to give this up.' It's, 'Sure, you can have it, but what am I getting back?'รข??"

In other words, we often feel we're exercising control over what we give up. And we tend to focus on what we think we're getting: security, social mobility, convenience, the validation of fellow Twitterati.

So, yes, the vast majority of us will continue to go through the full-body scanners. We will do it most of all because we hope the new technology makes us safer, but also because we're in a rush, because we don't want to make a fuss, because we don't want to find out just how "enhanced" a pat-down can be, because we don't even know what a full-body scanner is. We will do it because we've been inured to giving up things when we go to the airport, and it stinks, sure, but this is the price of flying in a scary age. We will do it because thinkingly or unthinkingly we have concluded this is a good bargain.

As Igo, the Vanderbilt historian, points out, Americans are traditionally more sensitive to intrusions of privacy by the government than by the marketplace. (In Europe, she notes, it's generally the other way around.) This strand - concerns about government overreach - certainly runs through the opt-out movement, although it doesn't appear to be limited to one side of the political spectrum.

"I am willing to accept a certain level of risk that comes with living in a free society," says opt-outer Ian Pilcher, 43, a frequent-flying software salesman who lives in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and considers himself a libertarian. George Donnelly, a co-founder of We Won't Fly, an opt-out Web site, goes further. He calls himself a "left libertarian market anarchist" and says that not just the TSA but "the state" itself "must be abolished."

But for many opt-outers, the objections are not about freedom or civil liberties in an abstract sense so much as a deeply emotional concern that full-body scanner technology is too threatening, too revealing, too ripe for misuse. They do not feel the bargain is worthwhile. They don't feel in control of their privacy.

"The mere existence of the technology is so ineffective, flawed and difficult to contain," says G. Stuart Mendenhall, a frequent-flying doctor at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Cardiovascular Institute, who says he has opted out of at least seven full-body scans.

Mendenhall's objections illustrate the complicated nexus of issues that animate the opt-out movement. He's primarily concerned that one of the two types of new scanners, the backscatter X-ray, might pose risks to people who are more vulnerable to radiation exposure. The TSA says the radiation in a backscatter X-ray is set low enough to be safe for everyone and points out that it has been evaluated by a number of agencies, including the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. But Mendenhall and some other scientists have expressed concern that the machines haven't been studied enough. Mendenhall also wonders just how much safer scanners make the flying public and imagines what loopholes terrorists might use to get around them.

And then, like so many other opt-outers, Mendenhall returns to those themes of exposure and vulnerability. He bring up that trump card, Negrin.

There's a social psychologist at the University of South Florida named Jamie Goldenberg who studies how people regard their bodies. She says controlled experiments reveal that people adorn themselves in a subconscious effort to separate themselves from the physicality of their bodies. Being stripped of those highly symbolic status markers reminds us of our animal side, she says, which in turn reminds us of our mortality.

Which is, it turns out, pretty similar to what Donnelly, the We Won't Fly co-founder, says.

"After you start treating [people] like they're a piece of meat, just another cow to be pushed along in a line, there's not much left after that," he says. "There's not much of our humanity left."

Funny thing, though: Goldenberg, who spends her waking hours studying perceptions of the body, went through a full-body scanner not too long ago without much thought at all. It was quick, she says now, and in the back of her mind she probably assumed it made her safer. Plus, she says, she doesn't consider herself a particularly modest person.

"I don't know," she says. "I don't really mind that kind of thing."

This is the familiar dance of human being and machine, of old-fashioned privacy and newfangled technology, negotiating terms. Or this is much ado about nothing, depending on where you choose to stand.

Copeland is a freelance writer based in New York.

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