TSA Chess Game: An Impetus to Biometrics?


I awoke Monday morning with plans to do laundry, clean my apartment and prepare for our upcoming trip around the world. However, I just couldn’t shake the Thanksgiving airport scanner “opt-out” debate. Although I do not think a boycott will accomplish much, if someone chooses to opt-out of the full-body scanner for whatever reason, I support them as an American with the right to choose. However, what concerns me more about this whole situation is how very few of the articles I have read seem to actually address the underlying issue.

So, what is the underlying issue?

If the new enhanced pat-downs were truly implemented in response to the recent “threats” of explosives and weapons being hidden in obscure places, why weren’t they implemented last year immediately after the infamous “underwear bombing” attempt? Such a change in security procedures at that time would seem more legitimate considering the fact it could have been implemented overnight at very little cost to the TSA.

However, here we are, nearly a year later and they just announced the new enhanced pat-down procedures which “coincidentally” coincide with the roll-out of the full-body scanners at most major US airports. (Updated list of US airports with scanners; Foreign airports with scanners) Do you find it disturbing that TSA screeners have admitted the reason for a more invasive pat-down is to encourage travelers to use the scanners instead? Not only is it disturbing to me, but very telling of the real motive…

As many of you are well aware, the current full-body scanners emit small doses of radiation to capture the image. Considering they are fairly new machines, no one really knows what medical implications they might have over time, especially for the frequent flyer. Thankfully, pilots are now exempt, but airline stewards are not, nor are business men/women who fly several times each week.

With regard to the image capture ability and the concern about images being stored, transmitted, or shared, do you remember how the TSA originally denied that the system had such ability? How is it then that the news media has sample images to throw up on the tele when discussing this issue? Fair enough, those images must be “test images.” However, the TSA now admits, these machines have the ability to store, transmit, and share the images, but this feature has not been “activated” on the scanners that are being installed in airports. Really? If you believe that line of bull, see below.

Scenario: Passenger gets scanned while trying to hide illegal contraband. The scanner shows an odd bulge where it should not be. Passenger is pulled to the side and searched by hand and contraband is located. Passenger is arrested and charged with drug smuggling. Passenger goes to court. Passenger argues that he was subject to an unreasonable search and seizure, so all “fruits” of that search should be inadmissible. Do you really think the TSA is not going to keep images of the person in the scanner to back up the legality of their search? Well, according to the TSA, the image will not be stored, transmitted or shared. Thus, one would think the TSA is setting itself up to lose many court cases.

So, what then is the real underlying issue?

Over the past couple of weeks, I have read many articles discussing Israel’s airline safety record and procedures. Some have argued we should model our airline/airport security procedures after theirs. Others warn that such a shift would be akin to racial/ethnic profiling and is against our rights. Regardless of what side of the fence you fall on, I think the average American can admit that such a quick move towards their “system” would cause, at a minimum, an initial uproar.

So, if you were the TSA or US government, how would you achieve the ultimate goal of implementing a similar system without freaking out the public in the process? Would you launch a profiling database and system mimicking Israel today? Would you roll out biometrics immediately? Doubt it! However, I believe you might just be inclined to jump in the sack with incrementalism and stay for cuddle time.

Have you ever heard of the Frog in a Boiling Pot metaphor? If not, here goes:

“The premise is that if a frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out, but if it is placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. The story is often used as a metaphor for the inability of people to react to significant changes that occur gradually.”

Here is my Prediction: This is all just a chess game…

The current scanners use small doses of radiation to produce a pretty vivid image of the body which is causing valid concern with many Americans. However, a new type of scanner apparently already exists that does not emit radiation and the image does not penetrate the clothing. However, there is a catch: It can also capture biometric data in the process. This new machine presents the perfect “opportunity” for the TSA/government to “cave” to public pressure and offer these alternative machines as a “better solution.” Bam! Now you have “safe” scanners, no nude images, and in the end you have biometrics which is what the government seems to have been pushing for all along. Such an approach is not unlike most negotiating situations…

Scenario: (Haggling for an item at a market) As the seller, you have a minimum acceptable price. You start by throwing out a ridiculously high price to your potential buyer knowing full well the buyer will think the price preposterous. In the end, when the buyer bargains you down near your “already established minimum” price, it appears to the buyer you gave them a really good deal. In such a situation, both of you walk away “feeling” like a winner. But, who really won? The buyer or the seller? Of course the seller always wins because they know the ultimate price they must obtain in order to gain any profit.

If the government had immediately implemented a policy requiring that all passengers submit biometric data in order to fly back in 2001, the flying public would likely have been outraged and the airline industry might very well have tanked. If you disagree with this statement, just search biometrics and privacy and you will see that this topic has been debated long before and now long after 9/11 happened. However, if the TSA implements it incrementally, by first allowing perks to those who volunteer for it (Two government programs Global Entry and Nexus are already in place and one private company offers the““Clear” program – submit your biometrics baby and you are in the fast-pass lane at the airport), gradually turn up the pressure over time (create public outrage at the alternative – the full-body scanner), and ultimately make the public think the “better machine” is what they have been asking for all along, the TSA can achieve the goal in the end. If you can successfully make people think it was their idea in the first place, you can get nearly whatever you want.

The real irony of the current full-body scanners is they would have not prevented 9/11, the shoe bomber, the underwear bomber, the Dubai-US mail bomb attempt, or the NY Times Square bomber. Why? Box cutters were allowed prior to 9/11, the shoe bomber, underwear bomber, and mail did not depart from a US airport, and the NY Times Square bomb attempt did not involve a plane. Furthermore, the current scanner in place at airports cannot detect objects inside the body (which is not a new technique for drug smugglers or terrorists).

In the end, this post is not intended to say who is right or who is wrong: opt-inners or opt-outters. However, it will hopefully open your eyes to the fact this is all really just a chess game. And, as with any game of Chess, the one who can see multiple moves ahead will likely be the winner. In this case, the TSA.

However, I do feel compelled to remind my fellow Americans:

“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” ~ Benjamin Franklin

Although I won’t be traveling this holiday weekend, I plan to opt-out of the scanner on our round-the-world(rtw) trip to avoid any potential health risks since I will be taking numerous flights over a six month time frame? However, If you are still debating the issue, the TSA suggests you should “opt-in” because everyone else is doing it!

4 thoughts on “TSA Chess Game: An Impetus to Biometrics?

  1. Hmm this is a very interesting article. You bring up some very valid points. So maybe what should be done is these techniques should be implemented on any passenger coming into the US. Hell lets do that and make the world even more upset at us. I just feel like the government is going a lil over board and now just doing things to keep us scared and live in fear of the next attack.

  2. Jaime, I am glad you took the time to read this and also that you didn’t freak out thinking this was a radical post. Being just a tad bit older than you, with a bit of hands on government experience (13+ years), I have a completely different viewpoint than the average citizen. As such, the only thing I can suggest to you as a young chap (:P) is that you be cognizant of where you are getting your news from.

    Try to spice it up a bit. Don’t stick with CNN, NBC, ABC, etc. Find a good mix of news sources. Stick with those that are “reputable,” yet controversial. Recently there was a great Tweet showing the different versions of news based upon your location. If I recall correctly, CNN’s homepage was drastically different if you were viewing it from the US. There was some stupid feature on the US version about “pop culture” or something else irrelevant and all of the other versions were about a very important global issue.

    Bottom Line: To be an informed American, one must step outside the mainstream. In your world travels, I think you will learn that truth very quickly.

  3. Not the least bit “radical” my dear. Simply one of the most thoughtful and conscientious editorials on the subject. Thanks for giving me w/ much new fodder to mull over. And yes, even better – for nudging folks to diversify their media portfolio. g-knows there’s more objective outlets out there than Fox, CNN, etc.

  4. Thanks for stopping by Dyanne. I got your guest postcard submissions over at Nomad Courier and am excited to publish them.

    Thanks for your kind words on this article and I am glad I have given you something else to chew on.

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