The U.S. government is required by law and by custom to balance the competing interests of public safety and individual privacy. The latest skirmish over the issue is taking place at the nation's airports. The introduction of full-body scanners at many sites and the promise of more to come have prompted a noisy debate about the images produced by the machines. Privacy advocates call them invasive and demeaning. Federal officials say they are a necessary adjunct in the war on terror. On balance, the latter appear to have the stronger case.
The new scanners "see" through clothing, using low-level x-rays to produce a milky, full body image of an individual. The resulting portrait leaves little to the imagination.
Scanner opponents, in fact, call the images a "virtual strip search." That might be so, but the new technology also provides security personnel with an enhanced ability to detect items and materials that can be used by terrorists to destroy an aircraft in flight or otherwise create havoc. Many experts agree the new scanner might have helped detect the type of bomb concealed in the underwear of a would-be terrorist on a Detroit-bound flight last Christmas. That threat was not detected by screens in use then, but the bomber's mission ultimately proved unsuccessful.
The question, of course, is whether the utility of the machine outweighs the perceived or real intrusion of privacy the scanner images create. The TSA, mindful of the delicacy of the issues involved, has done as much as possible to minimize such dangers.
The image produced by the scanner, according to those who have viewed them, is detailed enough to detect various explosives, weapons, plastics, powders and other devices that can pose a threat. The outline, though, is vague and faces are blurred.
Moreover, the images are viewed by personnel at a distance from security stations where the scans are made. That makes it impossible to match a specific image with a particular person. Once viewed, scanned images are neither saved nor stored. That should provide a measure of comfort for those concerned about privacy.
If would-be airline passengers prefer not to be scanned, there is an alternative - what John Pistole, the TSA administrator, candidly admits is a more invasive patdown than those depicted on TV or in the movies. TSA agents will manually search an individual's entire body, including breasts and groin. Those who don't like the new scanners or the idea of full-body patdowns have another choice. They can travel by some means other than airplane.
Concern about the scans and patdowns is understandable. Both are unsettling and both challenge long-held American views of privacy and personal liberty. Nevertheless, they should help improve security for the flying public. That's a fair trade, as long as the TSA employs the full-body scanners and the new patdown procedure as directed. Any other use unnecessarily violates the trust and personal dignity of air travelers, and is unacceptable.