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The Machines Will Save Us!

TSAWith the year’s biggest travel day fast approaching and with new airport security regulations in place, the media is buzzing about measures the TSA is imposing upon travelers in order to keep the skies safe. Popular news aggregators like Drudge Report are giving this extra attention, perhaps making it seem a bigger story than it actually is. Yet in recent days all of the major outlets have also been picking up on it. Everyone’s talking about what we have to go through in order to fly. Since the TSA was created in the wake of 9/11, it has gradually been clamping down, demanding more and more restrictions on how we travel, what we travel with, and how we will be screened before we do so. And sooner or later people are going to say, “Enough is enough.” It seems like the latest measures may have pushed people toward that tipping point.

It’s an interesting conundrum we find ourselves in. Most of us travel by air on a regular or at least semi-regular basis. And all of us want to enjoy peace of mind while we are cruising along at 550 miles per hour. And so we welcome some level of screening—the kind of screening that allows the 99.99% of us who have no evil intentions to pass through quickly, easily and conveniently, but at the same time ensures that all the bad guys will get caught. We know that there are millions and millions of innocent people processed through those lines in order to weed out the very few terrorists.

It’s the humiliation that most people object to, I think. Before 9/11 airport security was a slight annoyance, but by no means a major bother. But then the rules changed. They had to, I suppose. But soon we were taking off our shoes, then having to ensure we had only travel-size cosmetics, and then actually take those cosmetics out so the TSA could see them. And then came the infamous full body scanners, the machines that digitally remove your clothes so the agents can peer underneath to see what you might be carrying on or in your body. Of course it also gives them a pretty good view of the particulars of your body. The alternative, should you choose to opt out of the scanner, is a thorough pat-down, one that is quite invasive and involves hands rubbing over the inner thigh, the genitals and the breasts. I went through one of these last time I flew and it involved all of that, including hands inside the waistline. It was conducted professionally and by a member of the same sex, but it was still more than a little unnerving.

So what is the TSA to do? They are between a rock and a hard place, between their mandate to protect the skies and passengers who are ready to say, “Enough!”

What’s particularly interesting to me as I think about the whole situation is the TSA’s reliance on high-tech solutions to this problem. As I wrote a book about technology (look for it on April 1, 2011) I noted that humans are prone to idolize technology, to put our trust in it, to believe that it is the first and best place to go when dealing with our problems. And ironically, this is especially true when it comes to problems caused by other technology. So when we have so many emails that our heads spin, we do not look for a solution that reduces our reliance upon email; instead, we look for ways to better filter it. And when technology has given terrorists advantages over us, we turn to technology to find ways of rooting them out. And this is where the body scanners come in. They are the latest and greatest, the machines that leave us all naked and exposed before the authorities. If only we can get everyone to walk through those machines, we will be safe, right?

But I can’t help but wonder if putting our trust in technology here is a mistake. Israel offers an interesting contrast, one that uses technology to a certain extent but places greater trust in low-tech solutions. Israel relies upon people—trained agents who look for certain human behaviors that will tip them off to someone who has evil intentions. They ask benign questions, they look you in the eyes, and they study your behavior. All the while other agents are wandering around the airport, simply looking for people whose behavior would tip them off. Here’s a description of what happens when you pass security in an Israeli airport: “ ‘First, it’s fast — there’s almost no line. That’s because they’re not looking for liquids, they’re not looking at your shoes. They’re not looking for everything they look for in North America. They just look at you,’ said Sela. ‘Even today with the heightened security in North America, they will check your items to death. But they will never look at you, at how you behave. They will never look into your eyes … and that’s how you figure out the bad guys from the good guys.’” It’s a very different solution for the exact same problem.

This is not necessarily to say that one approach is right and the other is wrong. Rather, I simply find it so interesting to see that we tend toward the technological solution. There seems to be something in the heart, something within us, that wants to put its trust in the latest and greatest, in the best technology. We find comfort there. Israel represents the exception here, the one that has been willing to put its hope not in machines but in people, not in the highest technology but in the lowest. And their track record would seem to say that it has worked just as well; better even.

Meanwhile in North America we walk through the body scanners, finding comfort in their mere presence, finding comfort in knowing that this is the frontline, the most advanced technology. The machines will save us. They have to.

As for me, I am traveling in a couple of weeks and have no intention of walking through the body scanners. Not only do I object to the uncertainty of the radiation I’d be exposed to, but I also just plain don’t like them. I object. So I suppose that means another pat-down. I don’t like it, but it’s the cost of flying today.