Jeffrey Rosen for The Washington Post: How to make the Patriot Act more patriotic

July 5th, 2013

The Washington Post
by Jeffrey Rosen
July 5, 2013

The problem with the government’s handling of surveillance since Sept. 11, 2001, comes down to the choice of the naked machine over the blob machine.

In 2002, the Transportation Safety Administration had to pick between two airport screening technologies: one that showed graphic images of a passenger’s naked body and one that represented the body as a nondescript blob, with arrows pointing to the areas that required secondary screening. Because both technologies promised the same amount of security, while one also protected privacy, you would think the choice between them would be a no-brainer. In fact, both the Bush and the Obama administrations supported the wide deployment of the naked machine over the blob machine.

It took a political protest — represented by the Patrick Henry of the anti-body-scanner movement, the gentleman who in 2010 exclaimed to a TSA agent, “Don’t touch my junk” — to persuade the Obama administration and Congress to reconsider. This year, the TSA removed the invasive technology from major airports and replaced it with more privacy-protective machines.

Yet we remain unnecessarily exposed. Repeatedly, our government has chosen technologies, policies and laws that reveal innocent information without making us demonstrably safer. The massive telephone and Internet surveillance programs disclosed last month are the most recent examples. But the tendency goes back at least as far as the USA Patriot Act, passed in the anxious weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, with only one dissenting vote in the Senate.

Read More