Thursday, December 02, 2010

Sometimes I can't let things go

I had a conversation with a friend yesterday about airport scanners. If I understand her position, she isn't really bothered by the scanners and doesn't have issues that would prevent her from using them. I do have a problem with the scanners. Yes, the amount of radiation is reportedly an extremely small, insignificant amount. It's less than you get from the actual flight. And unless you're traveling all the time, it would probably never amount to anything. BUT. (Because you know there had to be one.) But that's not the only argument against them. (I'll get to these in a second.) Here's what I read:

Rez agrees the odds of getting cancer from the scanners may be low. But he calculates it's about the same as the chance of being on a plane blown up by terrorists. And he says that makes mass scanning not worth the effort.
The government says independent testing proved the airport scanners are safe. Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory did independent tests — but only to determine how much radiation the devices emit, not to examine safety, said Helen Worth, a lab spokeswoman.
The amount of radiation the devices emit in a lab setting versus real-world use may be different, and a group of scientists from the University of California at San Francisco argues that tougher safety testing is needed.
The four scientists expressed their concerns in an April 6 letter to Holdren, the White House adviser. It took him six months to respond.
Though the scanner images do not reveal what's beneath the skin's surface, the radiation they emit could potentially affect breast tissue, sex organs and eyes, said David Agard, an imaging expert at the University of California at San Francisco.
The response "is just a regurgitation of what the industry people have been saying," said John Sedat, a UCSF professor emeritus in biochemistry and biophysics.
He faulted the government for not doing safety testing in animals to see if the scanners caused any worrisome biochemical changes. Kassiday said the university scientists have not justified why that kind of testing on such low-dose devices would be necessary. --excerpt from Star Tribune

My takeaways from the above is that testing was done but it wasn't necessarily the right kind of testing. I have seen a lot of statements that say things like: "As long as they are operating as designed, the amount should be..." Is there some expectation they won't operate as designed? How much radiation are you hit with if it isn't operating correctly? What does all of that radiation directed at your skin do? If the likelihood of getting cancer is the same as getting blown up, why have the machine?

The scanners ability to detect and thereby thwart a planned attack is unproven. (I realize it can't be proved until it is used but at $150K+ per machine we should ask ourselves if we are getting a good return on our investment or if there is a better way to use that money to make us more secure.) One criticism is that the machines are unable to detect "low-density materials such as powders, liquids, thin pieces of plastic or anything that resembles skin. Nor can they detect any explosives concealed internally." We should remember that the Christmas bomber's attempt failed because of vigilant passengers who intervened, and a faulty trigger, not because security found anything on his person. In one of the Time articles I perused, a man mentioned prisons. Prisons have some of the most secure procedures in place. And yet contraband is still smuggled in. For traveling, we put up these theatre-security obstacles and eventually a focused and motivated terrorist is going to find a way around them. What works? Apparently the system used at Israeli airports. (I don't know enough about this to comment on it but I will be reading up on it for a follow-up post later. It does sound as if they use intelligence mixed with a bit of racial profiling.)

The fourth amendment states:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
I do not give up these rights merely because I choose to fly, regardless of what tragic events have occurred. I definitely take issue with the fact that politicians and other elites (Lawdy, lawd, I hate to use that word), are able to bypass the enhanced screening techniques. (Remember the last time we heard about "enhanced" things by the government? Yeah, it was with torture.) There is no reason to suspect me of being a terrorist so why should I be subjected to either a potentially hazardous scan or a pat-down that reaches the level of sexual harassment. If a warrant has not been issued because there is no probable cause, I should not be searched.

What's lacking in all of this is common sense. We do not empower our airport security folks to make reasonable decisions so they have to process the 87-year old blind invalid as if she is a threat and have her remove her shoes and her coat and her wallet and confiscate her nail clippers and her bottled water and ...

Argh. It's late and my head is spinning.

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