Proposal to Restrict Use of Whole Body Image Scanners as Primary Screening Tool in Airport Security

On June 4, 2009, the House passed H.R. 2200, the Transportation Security Administration Authorization Act, which authorized various programs of the TSA. There are at least two House Reports that analyzed the impact and scope of the bill, but the minute details of each are largely beyond the scope of this post. See H.R. Rep. No. 111-123 (May 19, 2009); H.R. Rep. No. 111-127 (May 21, 2009).

Instead, of particular importance was Amendment No. 10 (H. AMDT. 172), introduced on June 4, 2009, by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT). Cong. Rec. H6206 (daily ed. June 4, 2009); see also id. H6208 (Rep. Chaffetz’s arguments in further support of the Amendment). The Amendment proposed limitations on the use of Whole Body Image (WBI) scanners at airport security checkpoints as a primary screening method, and recommended that travelers be given the option to have a pat-down search instead, unless other primary screening methods identify the person as a potential security risk.

Key Provisions (from a Privacy Perspective) of the Amendment

The key sections of this Amendment are:

(2) PROHIBITION ON USE FOR ROUTINE SCREENING.—Whole-body imaging technology may not be used as the sole or primary method of screening a passenger under this section. Whole-body imaging technology may not be used to screen a passenger under this section unless another method of screening, such as metal detection, demonstrates cause for preventing such passenger from boarding an

(3) PROVISION OF INFORMATION.—A passenger for whom screening by whole-body imaging technology is permissible under paragraph (2) shall be provided information on the operation of such technology, on the image generated by such technology, on privacy policies relating to such technology, and on the right to request a pat-down search under paragraph (4) prior to the utilization of such technology with respect to such passenger.

(4) PAT-DOWN SEARCH OPTION.—A passenger for whom screening by whole-body imaging technology is permissible under paragraph (2) shall be offered a pat-down search in lieu of such screening.

(5) PROHIBITION ON USE OF IMAGES.—An image of a passenger generated by whole-body imaging technology may not be stored, transferred, shared, or copied in any form after the boarding determination with respect to such passenger is made.

Cong. Rec. H6207 (daily ed. June 4, 2009). These amendments were proposed as modifications to 49 U.S.C. § 44901.

House Reports Analyzing Proposed Legislation & Amendments

House Report 111-127 discusses the various amendments to the Bill, and provides another source of the text of the amendment. H.R. Rep. No. 111-127 (May 21, 2009). House Report 111-123 is also available and worth reading for its concise summary of the purpose of the bill. H.R. Rep. No. 111-123 (May 19, 2009).

Arguments in Support of the Amendment

Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D- NH) co-sponsored the amendment and spoke in support of its adoption:

“When this full-body imaging technology was first introduced, the TSA said that it would only be used as a secondary screening method for those people who set off the metal detectors. Now it has become very clear that the TSA intends for this technology to replace metal detectors at airports all over the country. The New York Times reported as much in an April 7, 2009, article.

“The Chaffetz/Shea-Porter amendment would ensure that full-body imaging remains a secondary screening method. It would also ensure that the people who do go through it are well informed and are given the option of a pat-down.

“Mr. Chair, we do not take this amendment lightly. As a member of the Armed Services Committee, I am very aware of the security threats that are facing our country. We, too, want to ensure that the Department of Homeland Security and the TSA have the tools they need to prevent future terrorist attacks. However, the steps that we take to ensure our safety should not be so intrusive that they infringe upon the very freedom that we aim to protect.

“Two weeks ago, I went to Washington National Airport to view one of these machines. I saw how the technology is being used. I saw the pictures it produces and the inadequate procedures TSA has put into place to protect our privacy. The images are incredibly revealing as I will show you here. This is a gross violation of a person’s right to privacy. It is also illogical because, if we allow this intrusion into our lives, then there should be this same scan at every single train station, at every building that we enter and on every single bus that we board.

So I ask that my fellow Members join me in voting for this resolution and for this amendment.”

Cong. Rec. H6207 (daily ed. June 4, 2009).

In response to the opposition raised during the session (quoted in detail below), Mr. Chaffetz argued in favor of the Amendment:

“Whole-body imaging does exactly what it’s going to do. It takes a 360-degree image of your body. Now, I want to have as much safety and security on the airplanes I’m flying every week, but there comes a point in which in the name and safety and security we overstep that line and we have an invasion of privacy. This happens to be one of those invasions of privacy.

“Now I understand why the gentleman from California expressed his concern. Let me be clear that this amendment on whole-body imaging only limits primary screening. It can be used for secondary screening. You may get people with artificial hips or knees or something else, and they may elect this kind of screening. It’s perfect for them.

“But to suggest that every single American–that my wife, my 8-year-old daughter–needs to be subjected to this, I think, is just absolutely wrong. Now, the technology will actually blur out your face. The reason it does this is because there is such great specificity on their face, that they have to do that for some privacy. But down in other, more limited parts you could see specifics with a degree of certainty that, according to the TSA as quoted in USA Today, ‘You could actually see the sweat on somebody’s back.’ They can tell the difference between a dime and a nickel. If they can do that, they can see things that, quite frankly, I don’t think they should be looking at in order to secure a plane. You don’t need to look at my wife and 8-year-old daughter naked in order to secure that airplane.

“Some people say there is radio communication. There is distance. Well, it’s just as easy to say there is a celebrity or some Member of Congress or some weird-looking person. There is communication.

“You say you can’t record the devices. Many of us have mobile phones or have these little cameras. There is nothing in this technology that would prohibit the recording of these. With 45,000 good, hardworking TSA employees, 450 airports, some two million air traffic travelers a day, there is inevitably going to be a breach of security. And I want our planes to be as safe and secure as we can, but at the same time, we cannot overstep that bound and have this invasion of privacy.

“I urge my colleagues to vote in support of this amendment.”

Cong. Rec. H6208 (daily ed. June 4, 2009).

Arguments in Opposition to the Amendment

Rep. Charles Dent (R-PA) argued in opposition to the amendment, but noted that his opposition was reluctant – favoring the heightened need for security over a slight risk to an individual’s privacy rights:

“Just yesterday, I visited Reagan National Airport and took a look at the whole-body imaging machines over there, and I just have to say a couple of things about this.

“I was impressed by the technology. It seems that we have a great deal of satisfaction from passengers who utilize that type of screening. There are limitations to the magnetometer. A magnetometer can pick up metallic items, like keys, but other prohibited items, like liquids and C4 for potential explosives, will be detected under the whole-body imaging technology but not under a magnetometer. So I do believe that this technology is valid.

“As for the privacy concerns that have been raised, while I understand them, I think they have been overstated. There are strong, strong restrictions in place to make sure that those individuals, the transportation security officers who actually help the passengers go through the whole-body imaging scanning, are not in contact with the person who is actually viewing the image. Those people are in a separate room, so they’re separated. The face of the individual is also blurred, so that’s another protection.

“So I do think that this technology is very valuable. It will help make us safer. Again, I think it is a step in the right direction. So I would reluctantly oppose the amendment. I understand the concerns expressed, but nevertheless, I feel that this technology is valuable and that it enhances security.”

Cong. Rec. H6207 (daily ed. June 4, 2009).

Rep. Daniel E. Lungren (R-CA) opposed the amendment, but without suggesting any reluctance in his opposition:

“I happen to be one of those people who happens to have an artificial hip. Every time I go through, I set off the screener. Every time I go through, I get hand-patted down, and even though they do it in a very nice way, frankly, that’s far more intrusive than going out to the Reagan National Airport and going through that particular system that we’re talking about with those pictures.

“We have been working for many years since 9/11 to try and come up with devices which will allow us to be able to detect those kinds of things that, if brought on airliners, would be a threat to all passengers. The whole-body imaging technology, which this amendment seeks to stop in terms of its application as a primary means of screening, can detect many things such as small IEDs, plastic explosives, ceramic knives, and other objects that traditional metal detection cannot detect. Let me underscore that: this device that this amendment seeks to take off the table as a primary means of screening can detect small IEDs, plastic explosives, ceramic knives, and other objects that traditional metal detection cannot detect. That ought to be enough for us to understand this.

“If you look at the privacy questions, let’s be clear: the person who actually is there, the employee of TSA who is there when you go through this machine, is not the one who reads the picture. That person, he or she, is in another room–isolated. They never see you. They actually talk to one another by way of radio. So this idea that somebody is sitting in this little room, waiting to see what you look like, frankly, is sort of overblown.

“All I can say is this: I have been through many, many pat-downs because I happen to have an artificial hip. Going through this at Reagan National Airport was so much quicker so less intrusive of my privacy than what we go through now. For us to sit here now and to pass an amendment which is going to stop this development and application, frankly, I think, is misguided.

“With all due respect to the gentleman from Utah, who I know is sincere about that, and to the gentlewoman, who is also sincere, I would ask you to rethink this. From my experience, this is far more protective of my privacy than what I have to go through every time I go to the airport, number one; but more importantly, it protects me and every other passenger to a greater extent than any other procedure we have now. We aren’t doing this because we want to do it. We’re doing it because we have people around the world who want to kill us, who want to destroy our way of life, and they have utilized commercial airliners for that purpose in the greatest attack in our Nation’s history since Pearl Harbor.

“This is a device which helps us take advantage of our technological know-how to gain an advance on the enemy. I would hope we would not do this by way of this amendment.”

Cong. Rec. H6207H6208 (daily ed. June 4, 2009).

Current Status of the Bill and Amendment

Initially, the Amendment failed – as recorded by voice vote at 3:00 p.m. on June 4, 2009. (Cong. Rec. H6208). Mr. Chaffetz demanded a record vote, and the vote was postponed until later the same day. Id. Shortly after 4:00 p.m, the amendment passed by a vote of 310 – 118.

The full text of the Amendment can be found in the following places: Cong. Rec. H6206 (daily ed. June 4, 2009); and H.R. Rep. No. 111-127 (May 21, 2009). Text of the bill and the amendments can also be found by checking the current status of either one – they are cross-linked.

The full Bill (H.R. 2200), as amended, passed the House by a record vote of 397 – 25. Cong. Rec. H6216 (daily ed. June 4, 2009). Presumably, this Bill will now travel to the Senate for re-introduction under a new Bill number and further debate.