The End of Privacy: Airports, TSA, and the Border

Guillermo Jimenez
Traces of Reality
August 7, 2011

Published in LareDOS (July Issue, p. 41)

It had been a familiar scene at an airport for quite some time now.  Answer a set of security questions, submit our bags to a search, through a metal detector, and off we go to our scheduled destination.  It’s the sort of security that has been cannon fodder for stand-up comedians for decades.  Within the last few years, however, this scene has changed significantly – and now, nobody’s laughing.

Reacting to recent threats of terrorism, namely “shoe bomber” Richard Reid and “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, The Department of Homeland security and The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) have applied more stringent security measures at airports nationwide.  After the shoe bomber, passengers were asked to take off their shoes. After the underwear bomber, passengers were asked to take off their… well, not quite.

Through the use of Advanced Imaging Technologies (AIT), body-scanning equipment has made it possible for TSA to see through the clothing of their passengers, down to the skin, without the added inconvenience or embarrassment of actually disrobing.  The images produced by these AIT machines are so detailed, depicting every bump and curve on the human body; they amount to a virtual strip search after each scan.  Should passengers trigger an alarm, or opt out of the body scanner altogether, they will then be felt-up – or patted-down, as TSA calls it, for any dangerous materials.

The use of full body scanners and pat-downs by the TSA has been met with mixed emotions.  There have been hundreds of instances in the media within the last two years of travelers across the country claiming abuse at the hands of the TSA.  However, overall, it seems like most Americans, have found a way to rationalize away those awkward feelings that may creep in when being scanned or patted down.  Something about it may not seem right, but with thoughts of possible danger on their minds, they remind themselves that it’s just the way things have to be.

At Laredo International Airport, most travelers seem to share in that same strange cognitive dissonance. When asked about their experiences with airport security, many used words like “too much”, “excessive” and “invasive” in one breath, and then “necessary” or “required” in another.  Camille, from Arizona, perhaps sums it up best. “I don’t really like the body scanners, or being patted down that much, but […] you’ve just got to deal with it.” With regard to the body scanners specifically, Susan from California remarked, “I don’t know. It’s kind of different. I try not to think about it too much, because its something you have to do anyway.  So […] either go through with it, deal with it, or don’t fly.” When asked about the possibility of the images from the body scanners being stored on the machine, she went on to say, “I would hope that they wouldn’t, but you know, what do you do? You have to travel.”

Most people traveling through the airport seemed similarly unsure when it came to the issue of privacy.  Though they recognize advanced security measures as an invasion of their privacy, most seem willing to freely give up that right for the sake of feeling safe.  In this way, the heightened security policy, while intended as measures for the greater good and safety of all, may be having severe consequences.  By protecting against the threat of terror, Homeland Security and the TSA may be creating a new kind of threat.  The threat of a changing America – one in which civil liberties, like the right to privacy and those protected by our ever-fading 4th Amendment, are becoming a thing of the past.

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” – 4th Amendment, U.S. Constitution

As newly imagined threats of terror materialize every day – shoe bombs, underwear bombs, and now “belly bombs” – yesterday’s “unreasonable” is becoming today’s desperately necessary.  The American public, by in large, have accepted the loss of privacy as a necessary evil in the war on terror.  And this dilemma extends far beyond airport lobbies and terminals.  The same rationale that is used to increase security at the expense of privacy at airports is also used to increase surveillance of the public more generally in other aspects of daily life – telecommunications, cell phones, emails, etc.  Whatever your opinions might be about the legitimacy of terror threats as reported by Homeland Security, it has become apparent that when it comes to fear-based public policy, the American people have bought-in, wholesale. And in this sense, Laredo is no exception.

At the risk of over-generalizing, Laredoans do not appear much at all concerned about the loss of privacy with respect to increases in security.  It’s not that Laredoans aren’t aware or do not care about their rights – we are, and we do.  But with regard to submitting for searches and screenings – we’ve had a lot of practice.  Whether it’s “going across”, traveling to and from Mexico, or driving north towards San Antonio or east towards Freer, the vast majority of Laredoans have answered questions from Federal agents and faced the possibility of search and seizure repeatedly throughout their lives.  In fact, until fairly recently – when it comes to Nuevo Laredo, a large number of Laredoans experienced it on a daily basis – and some still do.  As you travel further up north, the word “checkpoint” has a very negative connotation.  But in Laredo, a checkpoint is as ordinary as checking the mail.  The strangeness of this fact is something that for some may not be easily recognizable.  It takes a moment of objectivity – to step back and take a look – from the outside in, and realize how conditioned we’ve become.

While Laredo and other border towns may be a unique case study in the security vs. privacy debate, the underlying idea of long-term subconscious conditioning can be applied to the country as a whole.  As we move in the direction towards stronger security and more surveillance, and agencies such as the TSA assume more authority nationwide, the consequences to our civil liberties may not be immediately recognized, identified, or understood.  It may not be until many years later, when we’ve conceded much more of our autonomy than we ever thought we would, that we can well look back – objectively, from the outside in, and realize how we all bore witness to the end of privacy.