Since being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives a year ago, I have boarded an airplane twice weekly to commute between my Utah congressional district and my office in Washington, D.C. Each time, like every other passenger, I stand in line to pass through security, remove my jacket and shoes, take out my computer, and pass through a metal detector.
Early last year Salt Lake City International Airport began testing a new device called a whole-body-imaging (WBI) scanner. The process seemed simple enough: people pass through the scanner with their arms above their heads, then wait a few seconds while a screener reviews the image. Last spring I met with the Transportation Security Administration in Utah to find out more about it. I had seen some of the images in news stories and on television—but, as I learned, there's a big difference between the two-inch image in the newspaper and the one the TSA sees on an oversize screen. As I looked at those detailed images, I imagined my wife and children having to pass through that scanner. I resolved that no one should be forced to expose their body to total strangers to secure an airplane.
In September, while on my way back to Washington, TSA screeners in Salt Lake pulled me from the security lane I had chosen and asked me to walk through the WBI line. In Utah, submitting to these scanners is optional, so I refused. I was given a pat-down search instead, but only after arguing with the TSA about my rights. I worry that, soon, none of us will have an option.
That's why, even prior to this incident, I proposed an amendment limiting the use of WBI scanners—passengers would have to go through them only if secondary screening was required. The amendment passed overwhelmingly in the House, where more than 300 of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle supported it (the measure has not yet been brought up in the Senate). Now, after the attempted bombing on Christmas, there is a rush to implement the WBI method at airports; last week it was reported that transportation security officials are talking to scanner manufacturers about increasing production. But if we could all see the full-size images that TSA screeners see, many would think twice about surrendering privacy. The images leave little to the imagination, exposing passengers' bodies in sufficient detail for screeners to count the change in our pockets and see beads of sweat on our backs—not to mention intimate, gender-specific details.
In the wake of the failed attack, some say we have to choose between security and civil liberties. We don't have to sacrifice one for the other. Promising new technologies may provide the tools we need. For example, Dutch officials recently announced they would employ WBI scanners that use new software that protects passenger privacy by producing a cartoonlike image of the body. The scans would still detect foreign materials, but they would allay privacy concerns. And more aggressive behavioral profiling could help us identify those who, like would-be bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, leave telltale signs that should flag them for secondary screening: buying a ticket with cash, say, or not checking bags on an international flight. (The 400,000 people on the terrorist "watch list" should automatically receive secondary screening.) Other options—bomb-sniffing dogs, heat sensors, puffer machines—are also part of the answer. It's clear that the technology exists to secure our skies and our civil liberties. I don't want to let the government, or anyone else, peer through my family's clothing before we board a flight. None of us should have to.