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Queens Chronicle

Beyond metal detectors

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Posted: Thursday, November 18, 2010 12:00 am

Advanced imaging technology, now in use at 68 airports across the country, including LaGuardia and Kennedy International, allows Transportation Security Administration personnel to see everything one might be concealing, including his or her naked body. However, there is a choice: passengers traveling over this Thanksgiving holiday may opt for a full-body pat down instead.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the new procedures go too far. “Do you want the virtual strip search or the aggressive grope?” asked Chris Calabrese, a lawyer with the ACLU, who has himself been pondering his options. Calabrese said the ACLU is collecting complaints about the new security procedures on its website.

“TSA has backed down in the past when faced with public pressure, and we are hoping that the same thing will happen here,” Calabrese said.

However, unlike John Tyner, a passenger from California who canceled his flight after likening the new more aggressive pat down to a sexual assault, passengers at LaGuardia said they didn’t mind the extra security measures.

“Whatever it takes to keep planes from coming down,” said Tony Wood, a businessman from Birmingham, Ala.

Wood had gone through the new body scanner and said it detected the foil from a gum wrapper in his pocket.

“It would be great if we didn’t have to do it, but I think that guy would complain more if his junk was blown to bits,” Wood said of Tyner, who told a TSA agent “if you touch my junk, I will have you arrested.”

Passengers David Right and Judy Pham said they are naturally immodest, so the scans didn’t bother them. However, after listening to Pham respond that the procedure is “okay if it was for safety,” Right, a former attorney, said it concerned him that “people get passive and say, ‘If it’s for our safety we can give away our civil liberties.’”

So when would the TSA be going to far? “If you really had to get naked in a room, I would object,” said Shaya Yavari, on her way home to Atlanta.

Ann Davis, a spokeswoman for the TSA, said the agency solicits feedback from the public and had changed its screening procedures for children under 12 years of age after parents complained. Still, she said the agency has no plans to modify its current screening procedure.

Davis said the images produced by the body scanning devices protect passengers’ identities by obscuring their facial features. The scans are viewed by agents in private windowless rooms and, she said, are not stored. She assured that the agent viewing the images never meets the passengers being scanned and does not know their names. If something suspicious is found, the viewing agent communicates via radio with an agent at the security checkpoint.

“TSA’s primary concern is whether or not the individual is concealing a threat object under their clothing. It’s immaterial to us if you are a man and dress as a woman or vice versa,” Davis said when asked if the procedure might feel particularly invasive to transgendered individuals.

As for agents who may themselves object to viewing scanned images or touching people in ways that may make them feel uncomfortable, Davis said it’s part of the job and she had not heard of any employee who had yet felt awkward. “The officer is trained to communicate where they are going to place their hand to minimize discomfort,” she said, though she was unable to say where they place their hands, citing security concerns.

Beyond privacy issues, some passengers feared for their health. “I don’t know what those things do,” said Jeff Chase, a traveler from Raleigh, NC who chose to opt for a pat down. “I hope you’ll excuse me,” he said as he removed his belt, “getting ready for security.”

Chase is not the only one opting for the pat down. An online grassroots movement is encouraging passengers to choose to be publicity patted-down on Nov. 24, one of the busiest travel dates of the year.

Davis said passengers may select whichever option they wish, but that health concerns should not be an issue. She said the scanning devices were studied by the Food and Drug Administration and emit no more radiation than that experienced in flight.

Still, most travelers probably won’t think too hard about their options. They will likely follow in Right’s footsteps: “I’ll just choose whatever line is shortest,” he said.

Welcome to the discussion.