Don't sacrifice privacy; improve technology

In light of the alleged "briefs bomber's" attempt to destroy an airplane on Christmas Day, a debate over the line between security and privacy has once again reared its head. The government's most fundamental responsibility is to keep its citizens safe. After this attempted attack, President Barack Obama correctly engaged in an examination of how the bomber got on the plane, and he began studies on how to prevent future attacks.

Regrettably, before these full examinations are finished, some security experts and Transportation Security Administration officials have expressed a desire to expand the use of full-body imaging machines at airports around the country (Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport already has some machines installed). Some of these experts even want to go as far as to require every man, woman and child to go through these machines.

One positive will come from placing these screeners at airports around the country: Teenage boys will be more eager than ever to join their fathers at "Take your kid to work day. "

But seriously -- what is the price we are willing to pay for security? The best way for the public to understand how these machines work is to think about the piercing power of Superman's X-ray vision. Armed with that power, someone stationed in a little booth will look at "virtually naked" images of every person who enters the machines.

Are we really willing to allow the guy working that machine to see our mothers virtually nude? Our wives? Our children?

If the obvious privacy violations are not bad enough, there are also real concerns on whether these body images of children will violate European and American child pornography laws.

Now, those who support the machines claim the body images are immediately deleted after they are viewed a single time -- but really, in a world awash in tiny pocket cameras and cell phones, how long until we see body images of Angelina Jolie, George Clooney or Carrie Underwood appearing on the Internet? For some, this may be a positive for the machines, but how long until they put our pictures online?

Also, if Americans are being asked to sacrifice all of this privacy, will they actually be safer? The truth is, there is no real evidence the machines would have picked up the briefs bomber's bomb-making material. The machines do not possess explosive sensors. They require humans to notice any visual anomaly and then perform a more thorough search of the individual.

These machines also have a gaping deficiency: They cannot see items stuffed in body cavities, which are commonly used by smugglers. It is not far-fetched to imagine a terrorist sticking the explosive material up his anal cavity, going to the restroom during the flight to remove it, and blowing up the plane. These machines would never detect the explosives.

If a dog can smell explosive material, how are we unable to create a machine that can do the same thing? There are billions of dollars currently unspent as part of the $787 billion stimulus package. The TSA should immediately provide grants and seed money to spur private investment into technological advances that can detect explosives and other threatening items on individuals. The free market will provide a solution that protects our privacy while simultaneously detecting threats to planes.

Benjamin Franklin said, "Those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither," and he was right. Before we give away any privacy, let's make sure it will at least be effective at keeping us safe.

Chris Meekins is a Republican political consultant who has run campaigns in Maryland, including Andy Harris' 2008 congressional race. His e-mail is meekins.chris@gmail.com.

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