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TSA: Security or Security Theater?

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After an extended period of inappropriate, knee-jerk response, dealing with real security threats by providing security theater, the TSA is slowly responding to public outcry. Widespread discontent with the TSA's new measures was focused through the efforts of consumer advocacy groups such as FlyersRights.org, Ralph Nader's Center for Study of Responsive Law, and Marc Rotenberg's Electronic Privacy Information Center, and our efforts are beginning to bear fruits.

FlyersRights.org has long advocated security measures that are effective, safe, constitutional, and consistently applied.

The only consistency in TSA's application of its policies is their too-frequently random application. However, our other concerns are making headway.

Current procedures focus on the wrong things, and there are alternatives available that would improve their effectiveness. For example, dogs are much better at finding explosives than any machine. As we suggested, the TSA is now looking at ways to expand their use of those valuable resources.

Our safety concerns, and those of our allies, arise because members of the medical profession, many of them FlyersRights members, tell us that there is no established safe limit for radiation. Yes, we are subjected to it every day, but what are the safety implications of additional exposure? The TSA, after adamantly insisting that their systems are safe, admitted that many of their testing results indicated that the devices may not be safe. They have committed to retest all their machines and to publish the results.

Those important issues aside, FlyersRights and our allies strongly object to our government's trampling of our Constitution. Even here, where the Department of Homeland Security has proven the most tone-deaf, we see progress. Recent developments include:

  • In response to concerns that the full body scanners' graphic images amounted to an electronic strip search, the TSA is now field testing new software that presents a cartoon-like outline with suspicious objects highlighted.
  • Current one-size-fits-all procedures clearly presume the guilt of millions of innocent travelers every day, and are, in particular, a slap in the face to those who have served their country in positions of trust. We have always advocated for procedures that look for the bombers, not the bombs. Now, after months of DHS Secretary Napolitano's "get over it" response, the TSA will test new procedures designed to allow pre-screened travelers to quickly clear the TSA lines. Test airports will be Atlanta, Miami, Detroit, and Dallas.
  • As a result of a lawsuit brought by our friends at EPIC, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that the TSA violated federal law when it installed body scanners in airports for primary screening across the country without first soliciting public comment. FlyersRights joins EPIC and a long list of public advocacy organizations in demanding a standard rule-making process, including a public comment period.

When we raised these issues months ago, public reaction was, well, muted. Air travelers have now experienced the new measures, and perceptions have changed. Watch for our new Air Travel Security Survey, to be launched soon.

Those of you even now reaching for your mouse to berate us for wishing death on all air travelers might take a moment to ask the right question. You should not be saying "Well, if this keeps us safe," you should be asking "Does this keep us safe at all?" Of course we need security, but we demand measures that are effective, safe, constitutional, and consistently applied.

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