Updates to this story
Just as we thought all the good peep shows in Times Square shut down, TSA rolled out its new Advanced Imaging Technology scanners in 65 airports throughout America. Backscatter technology takes body scanning machines to a whole new level with imaging technology that can see through a person's clothes to reveal any metal bombs, shanks, guns, or a dangerous pair of tatas.
So realistic, these images reveal everything from crack to crevice, and certainly leave nothing to the imagination. Regardless of whether or not this is necessary, meaningless security theatre, or perhaps just a plain old violation of privacy rights, this risque technology got us thinking: what if these pictures leak? Are backscatter images the newest version of the celebrity sex tape or the naughty text message?
For airport security, the first line of defence is the standard metal detector and x-ray combo. The traveller is prompted to walk through the metal detector to scan for metallic objects hidden on the body. While the traveller goes through the metal detector, their carry on bag goes through the X-ray machine where airport security has a few moments to look for contraband.
With threats like non-metallic plastic explosives and composite guns becoming more visible post 9/11, The Transportation Security Administration has been searching for new ways to ensure safety without truly violating every traveler that passes through an airport. The solution? Backscatter technology.
The 2010 version of X-ray goggles, backscatter technology uses a low intensity X-ray to scan a person's body at high speed. The X-ray bounces off a person's body back to the machine, at which point a detailed image appears on the screen. The main argument for the adoption of backscatter technology is that with new threats like plastic bombs or other weapons, there is a need for enhanced technology that can detect these items.
TSA assures travellers that the backscatter machine is protected with a security algorithm or "modesty filter," that apparently distorts an body scan enough to protect the traveller's privacy while still allowing TSA employees to scan for threats.
Although backscatter images litter the internet showing exactly what TSA sees when you walk through the machine - keep in mind, these images are NSFW - according to the TSA blog:
"[These are] raw backscatter image[s] with NO privacy algorithm. This is NOT what security officers see – this image was used to show what the capabilities of the technology are."
That said, a recent fight broke out in Miami when a TSA employee taunted another TSA employee over his small penis, which he noticed when it was revealed thanks to the backscatter scanner. Knowing that his co-worker had indeed seen his manly bits, the not-so-well-endowed TSA employee gave his buddy a supreme beat down, which does not bode well for TSA's claim that the images are indeed distorted enough to maintain security without showing off all of your private business.
Knowing that TSA employees can see all of your goodies, it's only a matter of time until one of these backscatter images leaks onto the internet. For us average joes, most would agree that we all pretty much look the same and although humiliating, as long as our face isn't involved, no one will really see or care about the image. But what happens when a celebrity or adult actress walks through the scanner?
As if un-Photoshopped photos on the internet wasn't bad enough, celebrities and actresses that bank on licensing their name, personality, and body, serve as an enhanced case study in the fairness of this security technology. Where do we draw the line? We turned to reality porn star Raven Alexis [warning: adult page] to get her perspective on how a leaked backscatter image would make her feel:
"I would feel violated and exploited as I imagine most would should they be faced with the same scenario. While I would likely speak to counsel, I am generally of the belief that challenging the government in opposition to "safety" of any sort is a losing battle and thus I would probably try to make the best of the situation and use it to further the dialog about encroachment on civil liberties and individual rights."
But don't worry, you don't have to go through the backscatter machine. You can always choose the alternative. The alternative is a full pat down by a TSA emloyee. When Jeffrey Goldberg, correspondent for the Atlantic, opted for the manual search, he explained his experience with a TSA employee who explained why the backscatter machine is preferable to the manual search because, "Starting tomorrow, we're going to start searching your crotch area, and you're not going to like it." Eek!
For someone who created a career around her nude image, Alexis explains her lack of control when it comes to challenging a government implemented security system:
"As a business person I think it is imperative to have control over the assets which are integral to the success of my organization. I have a hard time believing there will be any remedy or effective relief for me should my image be somehow misplaced and end up in the hands of someone who chooses to publish the image without my consent."
If an image were leaked, the adult actress would not only suffer a blow to her personal brand and image, but also her business. Aside from the fact that Raven Alexis is someone who bases her career on selling her naked image, she is dealt a similar hand to the rest of us average travelers.
We are forced to either tack on time, hassle, and effort to our travels if we opt for the manual search, or we have to virtually strip for creepy TSA employees. "I wouldn't want to endure the hassle I have read about in "Opting-Out" nor would I want to have the possibility of having the scanned images leaked surreptitiously," said Alexis.
Although designed to improve safety and security, do we want our citizens to feel violated and helpless while on their way to visit Grandma?
The Electronic Privacy Information Center says no, as they are currently pursuing a lawsuit to suspend the use of body scanners in airports. The aforementioned Jeffrey Goldberg brought up a similar point when he said: "The second lesson is that the effectiveness of pat-downs does not matter very much, because the obvious goal of the TSA is to make the pat-down embarrassing enough for the average passenger that the vast majority of people will choose high-tech humiliation over the low-tech ball check."
Perhaps the whole pat-down/backscatter combo is simply an attempt to create the illusion of an iron clad security set-up, or perhaps it's just to save time and money by automating the system.
Whether or not you're a porn star, actress, or other high profile public figure, would you want to provide the government with your naked photo? In a time where public service announcements warn about the dangers of text messaging your naked photo to others for fear of leaving a lasting digital footprint, is giving in to the government's request for that naked image hypocritical?
Now is the time we need to decide whether or not we are going to accept the use of this type of technology, or whether we're going to demand our government find a way to ensure our safety while maintaining our integrity.