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New TSA Passenger Search Raises Concerns

The New York Civil Liberties Union is concerned about the application of certain new passenger screening procedures by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). On Monday, September 20th, the TSA began using trace detectors and expanded physical pat-downs in an attempt to detect explosives.

“The NYCLU is concerned about how passengers will be identified for these expanded searches,” said Donna Lieberman, Executive Director of the NYCLU. “Past experiences indicate, particularly with the TSA’s “No Fly List,” that there needs to be clear standards that distinguish between rational bases for possible threats or mere racial, ethnic or religious profiling.”

The No-Fly list is compiled by the TSA and distributed to all airlines with instructions to stop or conduct extra searches of people suspected of being threats to aviation. Many innocent travelers who pose no safety risk whatsoever are stopped and searched repeatedly. The ACLU has filed a class action lawsuit in federal court challenging the use of the No Fly List.

The NYCLU believes there are potential problems with trace detectors for explosives, or “particle sniffers” Molecular “cousins” of certain explosives, such as certain heart medicines and yard fertilizers, can trigger false alarms. The tolerance level set by the machine operator for detecting explosives may be set incorrectly. There is a possibility that the machine can malfunction due to poor maintenance or manufacturing defects.

These concerns raise the larger question of the protocol by which the TSA will handle false positive results. Will people who scan positive be targeted in the future? Will their photographs or personal information be stored and used later?

The NYCLU also warns that these devices must be used for the purpose of protecting airline safety. The NYCLU’s position is that it would not be a legitimate use of particle sniffers to detect for illegal drugs on domestic flights.

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