Privacy advocates want Hill probe of airport scanners

Privacy and civil-liberties advocates Tuesday called for controversial passenger-screening procedures at the nation's airports to be suspended and for Congress to investigate whether the Homeland Security Department has misled the public about the safety of whole-body scanning machines.

The advocates, including consumer activist Ralph Nader, want the use of whole-body imaging machines to be suspended at least until the department conducts a rule-making process under which it discloses detailed information about the safety of the machines and allows for public comment.

Nader, speaking on a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, said that opposition to the machines' use is growing from many organizations, including travel groups and pilots' unions.

"With the travel industry, the airline industry, the airline pilots, the unions, and the traveling public increasingly opposed to this, TSA's position simply cannot stand. They're going to have to suspend the program," Nader said. "Increasingly the burden will be on the U.S. Congress."

Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, noted that Congress has intervened before to stop intelligence or security programs in the face of public opposition, such as the so-called Total Information Awareness program and Secure Flight.

Indeed, TIA funding was canceled, while DHS had to revamp the Secure Flight program.

EPIC also plans to file a lawsuit this week seeking to require Homeland Security officials to turn over scientific and medical information about the whole-body imaging machines, Rotenberg said. The group tried unsuccessfully to get the documents through a Freedom of Information Act request, he added.

TSA and the Food and Drug Administration wrote in an October 12 letter to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy that "the potential health risks from a full-body screening with a general-use X-ray security system are minuscule."

"This technology has been available for nearly two decades, and we have based our evaluation on scientific evidence and on the recommendations of recognized experts," the agencies wrote. "As a result of these evidence-based, responsible actions, we are confident that full-body X-ray security products and practices do not pose a significant risk to the public health."

Meanwhile, representatives from passenger-rights groups FlyersRights.org and WeWontFly.com said on Tuesday's conference call that they support suspending both the use of whole-body imaging machines and physical pat downs at airports because they are too invasive.

WeWontFly.com is calling for people to boycott air travel. The group also wants passengers to boycott going through the machines if they have to fly on Thanksgiving Day -- an act of civil disobedience that could disrupt travelers' schedules.

FlyersRights.org has a toll-free hot line for passengers to report problems they encounter at airports.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec