Monday, June 24, 2013

Comment submitted (finally!)

Here is the comment that I just submitted to the feds (better late than never!). (Disclaimer: It's not my finest work.):

I would like to direct my comments for Docket No. TSA-2013-0004 towards two areas of the AIT rule. First, I object on privacy grounds, and, second, I object on safety grounds to the implementation of AIT screening. My recommendation is that the AIT screening program be stopped immediately.

In part IB of the NPRM (Summary of Major Provisions), it says, “AIT currently provides the best available opportunity to detect non-metallic anomalies concealed under clothing without touching the passenger…” followed by, “TSA implemented stringent safeguards to protect the privacy of passengers undergoing AIT screening when AIT units were initially deployed and enhanced privacy further by upgrading it millimeter wave AIT units with ATR software.” As a modest woman who also chooses to raise her children to be modest, I strongly feel that these two statements are contradictory and can not be reconciled. If you are viewing anything under my clothing, or the clothing of my daughter or son, then you are not protecting my privacy. It does not matter to me that the area under my clothing is not seen directly with the naked eye of an individual that I can see, or if a machine is viewing the area under my clothing and transmitting that image either to an individual in another room or to a software program that interprets the image.

This goes to a very fundamental aspect of humanity and, in particular, to a prevalent strain of modesty in America culture bridging across people of various faiths, ethnicities, and backgrounds. Humans wear clothes not only for decorative reasons, but also, and, in some cases, especially, in order to be modest. Anything under the clothes is intentionally hidden, not intended to be viewed by man or machine without express consent (that is, uncoerced undressing). It is, in practice, impossible to take protect passenger privacy while simultaneously forcibly viewing anything that is under passengers’ clothes.

Also in part IB of the NPRM, it says, “The safety of the two types of AIT equipment initially deployed was tested by TSA and independent entities and all results confirmed that both the backscatter and millimeter wave technologies are safe because the x-ray or radio waves emissions are well below applicable safety and health standards, and are so low as to present a negligible risk to passengers, airline crew members, airport employees, and TSA employees.” As a scientist (PhD, Molecular and Cell Biology, UC Berkeley, 2006), I find this statement unscientific and misleading. At best, the TSA has not been forthcoming in providing details and data about AIT safety testing. At worst, the TSA is playing Russian roulette with airline passengers’ lives.

It is clear from all research articles published on this subject that *someone* will die each year due to the excess radiation received from backscatter AIT screening, even if the higher end of estimates (i.e., 100 deaths) are inaccurate. The effect of millimeter wave radiation on humans is believed to be less severe, but this type of radiation has also not been studied as extensively. It is one thing for the scanners to emit a dose of radiation that is below ANSI standards, but it is another thing to make the statement that the scanners themselves are safe: that can only be know if there is full transparency for the scientific community of the machines. In the case of backscatter AIT, the TSA has already acted irresponsibly by deploying them despite known dangers. The millimeter wave AIT must be made available to scientists to study in order for any conclusive statement about its safety can be made.

In conclusion, I would like to analyze a dubious claim in part IB of the NPRM: “The level of acceptance by passengers has been high; the vast majority of passengers do not object to AIT screening.” The are only two alternatives to AIT screening. 1) The passenger may opt-out, in which case a rather invasive pat-down will occur. Those who object to AIT in part on privacy grounds, as I do, likely feel that an invasive pat-down is as bad or worse than being virtually denuded. 2) The passenger will choose to not fly. Aside from anecdotal evidence (I myself have stopped flying), there is other evidence that people are choosing not to fly. For example, an article on on June 23, 2013 reports that “airline boardings have slowed significantly, growing only .6 percent, down from 5.1 percent in 2009” while bus and train ridership have been growing faster. Therefore, the claim in the NPRM that people do not object to AIT screening can only be true if the TSA is referring only to complaints formally filed with the agency. But, of course, there are many reasons that passengers who do object to AIT screening feel that filing a complaint is not the best use of their time.

I feel strongly enough about the AIT screening that I have not flown since they came into widespread use after flying approximately twice a year for the prior decade. Yet, I have never filed a formal complaint to the TSA about their use. I have read that thousands of comments have been filed so far in response to this NPRM, and I have had it on my to-do list since the notice was first released. Yet, I have not found that it was worth my time to work on this comment more than the bare minimum required, and even so I am submitting it at the last minute. This is not in any way an indication of my approval of AIT screening – it is just an illustration that one who strongly objects to AIT screening (to the point of altering my travel behavior) still finds that filing a complaint with the TSA may not be the best use of his or her time.