Naked Security by Torin Monahan

Naked Security by guest editor Torin Monahan
(July 1, 2007)

Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport recently began testing an X-ray screening device that can peer underneath clothing. The so-called backscatter system uses low levels of radiation to scan travelers and give TSA agents a graphic representation of passengers’ bodies.

The stated goal of such a system is to detect concealed weapons or objects without subjecting travelers to more invasive pat-down searches by TSA screeners. Of course, many people are appalled at the prospect of strangers scrutinizing their naked, if software “blurred,” bodies and feel that this constitutes an invasion of privacy far greater than that of a routine search.

Security officials have anticipated opposition on privacy grounds, which is one reason why the machines are being piloted on a small scale. Officials want to test functionality but also ascertain whether public opposition will be too strong for the systems to be viable.

Beyond merited concerns over privacy, however, backscatter machines should be viewed as adding one more layer of surveillance to our everyday lives. While surveillance may increase security or infringe upon privacy, it also commits government agencies to costly financial obligations and subjects people to intensified control.

Each of these machines costs about $110,000, which is a major investment considering that there are roughly 500 commercial airports in the U.S. One could say that no price is too high for security, but this ignores the history of flawed security systems paid for by taxpayers. Indeed, a recent passenger screening system – which used “puffer machines” to detect traces of explosives – was suspended last year because of frequent mechanical failures, but not until after close to 100 of the machines were installed at 34 airports.

What each round of airport surveillance has in common is the generous funneling of public funds to private companies, regardless of the efficacy of the technologies. Meanwhile, some TSA screeners receive as little as $13.68 an hour for a part-time job of 25-hours per week.

Security systems also control people in troubling ways. Airports are now notorious for their surveillance rituals. People line up, remove clothing and shoes, and submit to electronic and physical frisking – all without knowing their rights or the limits of TSA authority.

All of this is part of a larger program to keep people compliant, uneasy, and uncertain, ostensibly so that potential terrorists won’t be able to discern and exploit points of weakness. Nonetheless, there’s something inherently undemocratic about an illegible social space, wherein citizens are kept in the dark about their rights and “asked” to submit to ever-increasing surveillance.

When authorities claim that backscatter machines will be used on volunteers only, at least initially, one can easily imagine a time in the near future when this will mutate into mandatory submission. Ironically, as people become more naked in the name of greater security, their rights become more opaque, hidden behind the veil of flashy new technologies.

Torin Monahan is an assistant professor at Arizona State University’s School of Justice & Social Inquiry and is editor of the book Surveillance and Security.

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