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TSA: Enhanced Pat Downs as Far as We’ll Go

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TSA Chief John Pistole said his agency has “no plans” to introduce physical passenger screening procedures that go beyond enhanced pat downs and body scanners. Pistole told USA Today, “I think we are at the most thorough that we will probably be in terms of our physical screening.”

The pat downs themselves could evolve, if only slightly. According to USA Today, “Pistole said the agency is contemplating minor changes to make the procedure more sensitive to some groups, such as victims of sex abuse and those with external medical devices.”

Pistole did say the TSA is looking for ways to improve its technology methods, likely referring to efforts to minimize privacy concerns. Pistole has made a point to talk up the agency’s plans to utilize software that produces a generic stick figure image when passengers are scanned, and uses boxes to identify potential concealed objects. Pistole has said that, currently, the software produces too many false readings, but could be implemented within months if testing improves.

While it’s hard to call Pistole’s “no plans” comment a promise, it is a bit of a relief to hear him say the agency has probably pushed physical searches as far as it should. For while some people may accept enhanced pat downs as a necessary layer of security, I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who would tolerate the likely next step in the physical search hierarchy.

Still, some may argue that by publicly saying cavity searches and the like aren’t in the plans, Pistole is simultaneously tipping his hand to the terrorists and, in a way, admitting that airport security is, fundamentally, a game of odds. By admitting there is a next step, and saying he won’t go there, Pistole is implicitly acknowledging that his system can be beat, and telling people how to do so.

This gets back to the central question surrounding body scanners and pat downs in the first place. If you can’t be 100 percent safe, what are you willing to give up to be 98 percent safe? 95 percent? Do these scanners, which invade passengers’ privacy and put screeners and passengers alike in compromising situations, bring us close enough to the unachievable 100 percent to be worth the cost?

Unfortunately, the TSA hasn’t really asked the public what it thinks. We’ve been given a false choice between two types of invasive searches, and told there are other forms of transportation for folks who disapprove. So it’s good to see Pistole drawing a line in the sand, even if that line is already beyond what many would consider reasonable. Let’s just hope he doesn’t cross it.

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