The Politics of Fear and “Whole-Body-Imaging”, By CFC’s Zack Kaldveer

by Zack Kaldveer, Consumer Federation of California, California Progress Report

In response to the attempted terror attack on a Northwest flight bound for Detroit the Fear-Industrial-Complex (i.e. Department of Defense, corporate media, talk radio, security technologies industry, Congress, the White House, ‘the intelligence community’, pundits, weapons/defense contractors, etc.) has kicked into high gear.

“Terror hysteria” has become all the rage again – echoing throughout the corporate media landscape and out of the frothing mouths of politicians desperate to demonstrate just how tough they are (Republicans are literally disgracing themselves).

Many of the same interests that took advantage of 9/11 to ram through the Patriot Act are out in force once again – aided this time by a much more influential and powerful ‘security industry‘.

Advancements in security technology may serve certain important purposes in specific situations, but more often than not, represent the continuing expansion of Big Brother’s ability to monitor and record nearly everything we do – usually under the guise of “keeping us safe”.

Whole-Body-Imaging: A “Digital Strip Search”

The latest security ‘savior’ being peddled is called ‘Whole-Body-Imaging’ (“digital strip search”) – with supporters seeking to have this technology installed in airport checkpoints across the country (at approximately $150,000 per scanner). These full-body scanners use one of two technologies – millimeter wave sensors or backscatter x-rays – to see through clothing, producing images of naked passengers.

A Transportation Security Administration (TSA) official was even quoted in the USA Today as saying, “You can actually see the sweat on someone’s back”.

What remains debatable however, is whether these scanners would have even detected the ‘underwear bomber’. This is in contrast to what we do know: if law enforcement had simply acted on the information it had already gathered – like the warnings of the ‘underwear bomber’s’ father – the plot would have been foiled much earlier.

Another point to consider before embracing this latest claimed “terror fix” is that for every specific tactic we target with a new, expensive, and often burdensome security apparatus, the terrorist’s tactics themselves will change.

Risks can be reduced for a given target, but not eliminated. If we strip searched every single passenger at every airport in the country, terrorists would try to bomb shopping malls or movie theaters.

As correctly pointed out by Ben Sandilands in his Plane Talking blog, “None of the techniques coming into use abroad can detect explosives inserted way, way, up a rectum, in say a reinforced condom like device that could be passed and then detonated. The whole ‘threat’ seems capable of lurching toward invasive physical examinations, ending in the collapse of air travel, if we follow the absurd logic that pervades a security scare industry that constantly seeks to create and then offer to solve new risks.”

Furthermore, and perhaps most telling, is the substantial amount of evidence ‘ including the case of the ‘underwear bomber’ itself – that suggests our government is gathering TOO MUCH information, and our expanding surveillance state is making us LESS safe, not more.

As Constitutional Scholar Glenn Greenwald notes, ‘The problem is never that the U.S. Government lacks sufficient power to engage in surveillance, interceptions, intelligence-gathering and the like. Long before 9/11 — from the Cold War — we have vested extraordinarily broad surveillance powers in the U.S. Government to the point that we have turned ourselves into a National Security and Surveillance State. Terrorist attacks do not happen because there are too many restrictions on the government’s ability to eavesdrop and intercept communications, or because there are too many safeguards and checks. If anything, the opposite is true: the excesses of the Surveillance State — and the steady abolition of oversights and limits — have made detection of plots far less likely. Despite that, we have an insatiable appetite — especially when we’re frightened anew — to vest more and more unrestricted spying and other powers in our Government, which — like all governments — is more than happy to accept it.’

Terrorism, Lightning, Salmonella, and the Health Insurance Industry

Before we all run to hide in our closets, willfully give up our civil liberties and freedoms, support wars on countries that did nothing to us, and sign off on wasting HUGE amounts of money on ineffectual security systems, consider this: Your chances of getting hit by lightning in one year is 500,000 to 1 while the odds you’ll be killed by a terrorist on a plane over 10 years is 10 million to 1.

Does this sound like a threat worthy of increasing the already long list of airline passenger indignities? Isn’t suffering through longer and longer lines while being shoeless, beltless, waterless, and nail clipper-less enough? Now we’ve got to be digitally strip searched too?

Further illustrating my point is blogger Brad Friedman:

“If you count the Ft. Hoot shooting as a terrorist attack (which it wasn’t, and isn’t even considered one by experts), 16 people have died in the United States as result of terrorism in 2009. The other three deaths include the Little Rock military recruiting office shooting (1), the Holocaust Museum shooting (1), and Dr. George Tiller’s assassination (1), the last two coming at the hands of right-wing extremists. Now let’s compare that to the 45,000 Americans that died because they didn’t have health insurance and 600 that died from salmonella poisoning.’

So let’s scrap the whole meme that we should live in fear and must give up our constitutional rights in order to be safe from a threat that is a fraction of that posed by lightning, salmonella, and the health insurance industry. Once we are free from that fear, we can discuss, rationally, specific security proposals being pushed by a variety of elected officials and security industry spokespeople looking to profit off “terror”.

The False Choice: Privacy versus Security

As is so often the case with technologies like Whole-Body-Imaging, the concerns go far deeper than what data is collected (though that is important too). Also of great importance is what happens to that data once collected? The claims that these devices will distort a person’s face or other features to protect privacy are nonsensical.

For one, a “would be terrorist” would simply find a way to use this ‘distortion’ as yet another hole in the system (i.e. nasal, rectal or mouth cavities). And secondly, are we really to believe the government won’t allow these devices to record any data when the easy “go to” excuse for doing so will be the need to gather and store evidence? What about the ability of some hacker in an airport lounge capturing the data using his wi-fi capable PC – and then filing it to a Flickr album, and then telling of its whereabouts on Twitter?

For these reasons, privacy advocates continue to argue for increased oversight, full disclosure for air travelers, and legal language to protect passengers and keep the TSA from changing policy down the road. Again, what’s to stop the TSA from using clearer images or different technology later? The computers can’t store images now, but what if that changes?

The bottom line is a rather stark one: Is the loss of freedom, privacy, and quality of life a worthwhile trade-off for unproven protections from a terrorist threat that has a 1 in 10 million chance of killing someone over a ten year time period?

Could all this hype be just another way to sell more security technologies, soften us up for future wars, increased spending on the military, and the evisceration of our civil liberties?

Walking through a whole-body scanner or taking a pat-down shouldn’t be the only two options for citizens living in a free society. As the ACLU pointed out, “A choice between being groped and being stripped, I don’t think we should pretend those are the only choices. People shouldn’t be humiliated by their government” in the name of security, nor should they trust that the images will always be kept private. Screeners at LAX (Los Angeles International Airport) could make a fortune off naked virtual images of celebrities.”

More Effective Ways to Reduce the Threat of Terrorism

If we are truly trying to reduce the threat of terrorism there are DEMONSTRABLY more effective ways than those currently being pursued. A few alternative tactics to consider: stop bombing and occupying Muslim nations, arming their enemies, torturing and indefinitely jailing their people, and supporting ruthless dictators in their countries.

While we’re at it we should reinstate every gay Arabic translator (which we have a critical shortage of today) expelled from the military due to their sexual preference (in fact all gays that were expelled), and focus our attention on intelligence gathering rather than warmaking to catch the real extremists that want to do our country harm.

No one is denying that terrorism is a threat or seeking to justify their murderous crimes, but how does creating more of them make us safer? And instead of spending one more minute listening to the grumblings of a war criminal like Dick Cheney, we would do well to heed the words of Martin Luther King Jr. instead: “We all have to be concerned about terrorism, but you will never end terrorism by terrorizing others.”

A Few Bright Spots in the Corporate Media

Thankfully we do have a few voices of reason in the mainstream, corporate media. First, be sure to check out this discussion on Whole-Body-Imaging between Air America’s Thom Hartmann and the ACLU’s Michael German.

Second, watch Rachel Maddow’s interview with security expert Bruce Schneier, author of Beyond Fear: Thinking Sensibly About Security in an Uncertain World. Schneier perhaps sums up the false choice we are being given best:

“If you set up the false dichotomy, of course people will choose security over privacy — especially if you scare them first. But it’s still a false dichotomy. There is no security without privacy. And liberty requires both security and privacy. The famous quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin reads: “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” It’s also true that those who would give up privacy for security are likely to end up with neither.’

And finally, Keith Olbermann also covered this story, focusing in on how ‘Whole-Body-Imaging’ may violate Britain’s child pornography laws ‘ thereby possibly exempting children from being subjected to the scanners.

The Legislative Fight Ahead

The crisis that our democracy faces goes far deeper than any battle over one particularly intrusive scanner technology, and tackling these larger, fundamental and systemic social, cultural, and political challenges will have to be left for another day.

In the meantime, there is something that can be done on the issue of “Whole-Body-Imaging”. A few months ago the House of Representatives – by a 310-118 vote – approved legislation that curbs the growing use of these devices at airport checkpoints. The question now becomes whether – particularly in light of the recent terror hysteria – the Senate will follow the House’s lead?

To counteract the immense power of fear on the human mind, the growing influence of the security industrial complex, and all those craven elected officials seeking to score political points, our Senators must hear from us. The Electronic Privacy Information Center is currently leading an effort to suspend the use of “Whole Body Imaging” technologies. Check it out, and make your voices heard.