May 2009 Ethics Dunces

The Electronic Privacy Information Center

Yes, torture goes too far. Profiling is unfair. We don’t want domestic surveillance. But somewhere, somehow, the self-appointed guardians of our rights need to get a grip, and accept that it is reasonable and right to make some concessions when the government has to ensure that another hijacked airplane doesn’t knocks down a building full of Americans. The new “full body scan” machines are an extremely useful and convenient tool for that purpose, speeding up the security clearance process significantly and also eliminating those humiliating wanding, “now I’m going to touch some sensitive areas with the back of my hands” massaging pat-down sessions when you happen to set off the gate alarm. (Full disclosure: as the proud owner of a titanium hip joint, I have to go through special screening every single time I get on an airplane, which is often. I love the new machines, of which there is one being used in D.C.’s Reagan National Airport.)

Issues of convenience and security, of course, are not the primary interests of the privacy police, who think it is more important that no security personnel get to see blurry images of our ta-tas and pee-pees than it is to make sure that we don’t end up modest, unexposed and dead. CNN reports that the Electronic Privacy Information Center plans to lead a charge against the body scanning machines by organizing a protest with the U.S. Department of Homeland, arguing that the machines perform a “virtual strip search” and take “naked pictures.”

The machines "detect both metallic and nonmetallic threat items to keep passengers safe," A story by CNN’s Jessica Ravitz quoted Kristin Lee, a spokeswoman for TSA, as vouching for the new machines’ effectiveness. "It is proven technology, and we are highly confident in its detection capability," Lee said. And measures are taken to ensure that maximum privacy is assured: the faces on the images are blurred as well as the anatomical details. What are clear is metallic objects, which is the whole point. But the privacy fanatics have a laundry list of “what ifs.” What if the images in later versions of the technology is clearer? What if the use of the technology becomes more widespread, like in malls and office buildings? What if the images are secretly stored, or if a black market develops for the scans of celebrities?

What if while we’re wrestling with these obsessed, if sincere, people, thousands of travelers lose thousands of hours and get groped in the process? What if a few thousand people die because we are afraid of using better technology that might be abused?

Those protesting the use of the new airport machines have joined the similarly deluded protesters of traffic cameras, who argue that the rights of drivers to have privacy while driving should allow them to speed and run stop signs and lights without having to say “cheese,” even if more people get killed as a result. Retarding useful technology based on speculative theories of future misuse is irresponsible, and when the technology saves time and protects lives, it is also annoying and dumb. There are times, and this is one, when simple balancing does the trick: on one side, the possibility that a stranger will get a charge out of looking at a blurry image of you without your clothes, without your face visible, in a photo that would get any X-ray technician fired for incompetence. On the other: no invasive pat downs, saved time, and better airplane security. The verdict, by a knockout: the full body scan.

In this case, the end absolutely justifies the means, unless you are one of those strange people who thinks privacy is the #1 priority in life. Other people feel the same way about guns, abortion, eating meat, Native American sports team names, rap music, and saving the snail darter. They are misguided too. True, if privacy advocates don’t manufacture a non-existent threat periodically, they can’t raise money and get members. Now and then there really is a threat to privacy, and then we’re glad they’re there, holding rallies, harassing elected officials. They’ll be more effective when it counts, however, if they don’t squander their credibility by taking the wrong side on a good utilitarian trade-off.




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