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TSA Surveillance: Peep Show, Police State, Privacy Invasion or All Three?

We've heard how if you don't like TSA screenings, then don't fly; instead take a bus, a train, or drive your car. If gas prices keep climbing, driving may not be an affordable option in the future. In that same future, Homeland Security had considered hitting the streets with TSA airport-like body scanners to covertly peek under your clothes, into your bags, and even into your vehicles. Whether you call it a police state, a peep show, or plain old privacy invasion, the increasing surveillance needs to stop.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) discovered that the Department of Homeland Security paid contractors "millions of dollars on mobile body scanner technology that could be used at railways, stadiums, and elsewhere" on crowds of moving people. EPIC acquired the 173-pages of contracts and reports [PDF] via the Freedom of Information Act.

Homeland Security said it dropped the project, but EPIC lawyer Ginger McCall called Homeland Security's project "disturbing" because the "department obviously believed that this level of surveillance is acceptable when in fact it is not at all acceptable," USA Today reported.

Then came a debate whether or not this type of tracking could or should be labeled as a police state. The Washington Post quoted EPIC's executive director Marc Rotenberg as saying "It's very much out of character for the U.S. to embrace this type of suspicion-less surveillance. But instead of branding it as part of a police state, let's simply put an end to it."

As ACLU attorney Chris Calabrese pointed out, the TSA may decide in the future to set up roadblocks and conduct checkpoints at public events or anywhere it pleases.

Military and law enforcement are already using this mobile scanning technology in the form of at least 500 confirmed x-raying Z Backscatter vans. These full-body type scans can "see" into vehicles, so searches potentially could be conducted without your knowledge as you drive or walk by.

Christopher Elliot reported on an airport traveler who watched a Seattle-Tacoma International Airport TSA agent going through rows of seated people in the waiting area and then choosing bags to search without giving a reason for the search outside of security checkpoints. TSA surely has enough to keep busy as is? According to the Associated Press, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told Congress that too many people are carrying on their baggage to avoid luggage fees, which means TSA must search the bags at security checkpoints. Napolitano said Homeland Security needs an additional $260 million annually or else travelers will have to endure even longer delays at airport security checkpoints.

In other TSA-related news, the TSA blog fully denied that the TSA would conduct DNA testing or "genetic patdowns." Instead, the TSA blog reports, "DHS S&T expects to receive a prototype DNA analyzer device this summer to conduct a preliminary evaluation of whether this kind of technology could be considered for future use. At this time, there are no DHS customers, nor is there a timeline for deployment, for this kind of technology - this is a simply a preliminary test of how the technology performs." While the article states there are no plans of testing out this technology, then why evaluate it at all?

Oral arguments are scheduled this week for EPIC vs. DHS on the stripping of freedom via TSA body scanners at airports. Depending how the case goes, perhaps there will be no revisiting of Homeland Security's proposal to body-scan pedestrians moving about in a crowd in what might have been the world's largest public peep show?

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