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Students shouldn't sacrifice privacy for illusory security

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | DECEMBER 17, 2010 7:30 AM

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If a person on Washington Avenue walked up to you and slid her or his hands up your thighs, you would resist and he or she would likely be arrested. But if the individual was wearing a Transportation Security Administration uniform and you were in an airport, you would be told to put your shoes on, reclaim your belongings, and continue to your gate.

The fact that this distinction exists is profoundly disturbing. With the holiday season upon us and many University of Iowa students traveling, they should make it clear they object to Transportation Security's invasive full-body X-ray technology and enhanced pat-down procedures. All citizens, including students, should stridently resist this erosion of our civil liberties, especially when such measures do little to strengthen security.

Transportation Security's controversial new technology and tactics raise clear constitutional questions.

"The most pertinent objections could be made under the Fourth Amendment," said Tim Hagle, a UI political-science associate professor and an expert on constitutional law. "And that's a tough call, because the question for the courts is whether the search is reasonable." The government does have an interest in protecting air travel, but to what extent does Transportation Security need to invade people's privacy rights to serve that interest? "The key is going to be proper balance," Hagle said.

If the pat downs and body scans were absolutely necessary and effective in ensuring security, then we would be more likely to accept them. However, as a recent study by researchers at Arizona State University concluded the effectiveness of the scanners is limited. The study found that the scanners have difficulty picking up objects with smooth edges and that dangerous amounts of plastic explosives would be "virtually invisible" to the scanners. The pat down is even more unreasonable. It does not include a cavity search, so a potential terrorist expecting a pat down could still easily smuggle dangerous items onto an aircraft.

Transportation Security Administrator John Pistole contends that the screening procedures are acceptable because people can choose not to fly — an extremely tenuous argument. It is certainly not reasonable to assert that people should be denied the benefits of air travel because they are worried about invasions of their privacy.

Consider the experience of a California woman who was selected for a pat down after going through a metal detector. The agent patting her down forcefully inspected the area of her recent mastectomy, subjecting her to physical pain and humiliation, as well as flippantly dismissing her protests and those of her son. The woman is now filing a lawsuit against Transportation Security and the Department of Homeland Security.

While it's an undoubtedly odious manifestation of the post-9/11 national-security state, it's also important to put the pat downs and body scanners in perspective. Transportation Security pat downs are certainly disconcerting, but even more distressing are ethnic profiling and stop-and-frisk policies and warrantless wiretapping. The fact is, the American citizenry has acceded to greater encroachments on their civil liberties than X-ray strip searches.

Over the past decade, the greatest impetus for changes in aviation security has been American insecurity. Each time a potential plot is uncovered, citizens remember the horror of 9/11 and cry out for the government to protect them. Each time a new, questionably effective screening method appears, citizens have been willing to exchange personal liberty for the illusion of greater safety.

We hope Transportation Security pat downs and scanners serve as a wake-up call, for students and nonstudents alike.


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