Wednesday, November 24, 2010

TSA scanners

It might be interesting to take the airport scanners that are getting attention at the moment and look at them through the lens of being false positive-centric.

Advanced technology helps find the true positives. The point of doing it is to find hidden bombs that could kill a lot of people.

However, taking a machine's representation as a stand-in for something real has problems. We also have lie detector machines, and their results are (if I have this correctly) not admissable as evidence in courtroom trials. So the scanners could be terrific, subject to the usual concerns: (a) incompetent technicians making mistakes, (b) A plant: falsified scanner images designed to target someone. It's rare, it's unusual, but not nearly as difficult to do in digital environments as in someone's dresser drawer. If the TSA starts to be used to do political persecution, what might happen next is that "the solution will unfold when the time comes, from the impact of the problem itself." People would make other arrangements - but like I asserted in the last post, if there always must be a "canary in a coalmine" or a kid must get killed at a crosswalk for the new traffic light to go in, the impact of the problem can indeed be said to have gotten the ball rolling for a general solution, but the family of that kid will see it differently.

If you trust the machine, if you trust the manufacturer (and they don't have a cloud over them, Diebold-style,) if you trust the technicians and you are confident that they are acting in good faith, I think these types of scanners could be an elimination of false positives. In a way, it's the opposite of an indiscriminate basket warrant. Or an indiscriminate camera on a street in London. It's technology being used at a very specific time and place, to make sure that nobody getting on a plane is going to do damage, to people and property, way out of proportion to its being a single event.

So leaving aside the dramatic flashpoints, most of what happens at an airport scanner is banal. As far as the banal annoyance and humiliation of having to deal with a lot of new crap at airports, I don't know. On the one hand, air travel had a martial quality in the first place. There's no mistaking the inside of an airport for a free place. I'm not that surprised that airports now feel like mini police-states, and I don't know that I mind. On the other hand, I think it's worrisome to be carving out exceptions for certain parts of a society. Airports are one point on the slippery slope. There is really no limit to the the sorts of events and social roles that could be invoked in order to gradually militarize more and more special exception zones within a representative democracy with a bill of rights, or a charter of rights and freedoms. The charter would still hold, except here, except over there, except on alternate Tuesdays, except at city hall, except at the airport and the train station and soon you have a charter that is like swiss cheese. It makes sense when we feel the militarized quality of a big airport because big airports are busy, with loads of people and objects passing through and then escaping for faraway places. And there's money involved - airplanes are expensive to replace. And passengers riding on commercial airlines hold their breath, suspend their disbelief, and put their trust in the airline for those few hours. All good reasons for carving out a militarized zone - maybe - but these same attributes also happen in many other places: other transportation hubs, downtown shopping areas and financial districts. And the impetus/pretext for a militarized zone could also unfold over time: a natural disaster, a visiting dignitary or president staying at a big hotel or attending an event at a giant convention complex. One of the points that Paul Jay made in writing and doing videos on the G20 meeting is that it's actually at the time when they are under pressure that it is the most important for rights to be retained. Otherwise you're always going to be able to find some reason to suspend, suspend, suspend.

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