Security Digest: Our list of security stories that matter, Jan. 31-Feb. 6


Flickr image courtesy Christop Brooks-Booth

Sorry, folks. We had to put Security Digest on hold for a moment to do some travelling and catch up on other work. But we’re back with a hearty list of headlines.

Following months of complaining and demands from Congress, the Department of Homeland Security has begun testing new software for full-body airport scanners designed to permit travelers greater privacy protections. The devices see underneath clothing, unlike traditional metal detectors, and that’s led critics to deride them as “porno scanners” and “virtual strip searches.”

Airport screeners using the updated software would now see only the outline of a human form and an alert if something suspicious turned up on the traveler’s body. It's now being tried out in Las Vegas.

Republican Susan Collins of Maine, ranking member of the Senate’s homeland security committee, asked the Transportation Security Administration months ago about similar technology being used in Amsterdam that avoided radiation exposure from X-rays and enhanced privacy for fliers.

On the House side, Democrat Bennie Thompson commended the TSA for continuing to improve aviation security but added in a Feb. 1 statement, “we must also continue to protect the privacy of the flying public."

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Elsewhere in the land of transportation security, conspiracy theorist and former body wrestler Jesse Ventura is suing the federal government claiming that airport X-ray scanners and physical pat-downs violate constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The one-time Minnesota governor had his hip replaced in 2008, and a titanium implant continually set off metal detectors when he travelled. Before the TSA instituted new screening practices last year, Ventura says that airport screeners simply used hand-held wands to scan him as an additional security measure, according to MSNBC:

But when Ventura set off the metal detector in November, he was instead subjected to a body pat-down and was not given the option of a scan with a hand-held wand or an exemption for being a frequent traveler, the lawsuit said. The lawsuit said the pat-down “exposed him to humiliation and degradation through unwanted touching, gripping and rubbing of the intimate areas of his body.”

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Officials in Washington, D.C. plan to dramatically expand an existing network of surveillance cameras, adding digital eyes from private businesses such as banks, gas stations and small food marts. The images will feed into an all-hazards operation center, where personnel already monitor 4,500 cameras 24 hours a day.

From the Washington Examiner:

When it started in spring 2008, the program immediately met resistance from the [D.C. city council]. Some council members worried that the closed-circuit television system was put together too quickly and without consideration for how effective it would be in reducing crime or preventing terrorism.

Records we obtained recently show the nation’s capitol region has budgeted millions of dollars in recent years for cameras and related equipment using federal homeland security grants, including “real-time bus onboard video surveillance” and “intelligent closed-circuit television.”

Security camera technology does much more today than simply capture images. It’s capable of recognizing faces, alerting security to suspicious bags or packages and allowing targeted searches across hours of footage.

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Questions are already being raised about the federal government’s new strategy for alerting citizens to possible terrorist threats. After years of ridicule from critics who dismissed as useless the color-coded terror alerts favored by former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, the feds finally decided last month to abandon it and unveil a different approach.

Obama’s homeland security secretary, Janet Napolitano, says the government will use more detailed, colorless alerts involving specific threats. One major difference is that the threat level will be forced downward within a pre-determined period of time depending on the availability of credible intelligence.

The Hill newspaper, however, says some experts remain skeptical. That’s in part because officials will still have to balance keeping certain classified information about terrorist threats a secret and providing the public with enough useful direction as possible. Plus, any advisory system has the potential to excessively alarm the public.

Here’s what Heritage Foundation policy analyst Jena Baker McNeill told The Hill:

“There’s a lot of desire among people to know what we’re facing. I mean we talk about that but a lot of times we don’t really communicate it to the public in a way that means something to them.”

Added Eric Dietz, director of Purdue’s Homeland Security Institute:

“The challenge is that when we over-alarm the public and we get more information than we can handle and chase down, then we look as equally ineffective with too much information as we did with too little.”

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More accusations are surfacing that the FBI’s “strong-arm” tactics for catching terrorists have gone too far. This time, St. Louis residents of Somali descent – in particular, cab drivers at the city’s airport – say they’ve been grilled by FBI agents with questions and asked to turn over the contents of their cell phones and computers. An FBI spokeswoman conceded that the bureau’s outreach to Somalis “is not at the level we would like it to be.” According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

Jim Hacking III, a legal consultant to the local chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, believes that trust is fading. Hacking once worked closely with the FBI in its outreach efforts to Muslims. When the FBI put out a bulletin that warned al-Shabaab [the extremist group] might try an attack in the U.S. timed to the presidential inauguration, Hacking helped the FBI with a request to locate several local Somalis. … 'I take the position now, you're a fool to talk to the FBI without an attorney,' he said. 'I recognize they have a difficult job to do. I just think the way they are doing it is backwards. You can't build bridges at the same time you're scaring … people.'

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