TSA Pat Downs and Privacy Policies Are Illegal

A year ago this coming Sunday, the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ordered the Transportation Security Administration to do a notice-and-comment rulemaking on its use of Advanced Imaging Technology (aka “body-scanners” or “strip-search machines”) for primary screening at airports. (The alternative for those who refuse such treatment: a prison-style pat-down.) It was a very important ruling, for reasons I discussed in a post back then. The TSA was supposed to publish its policy in the Federal Register, take comments from the public, and issue a final rule that responds to public input.

So far, it hasn’t done any of those things.

The reason for the delay, stated in a filing with the court last year, was the complexity and expense of doing a rulemaking in this area. But CEI’s Ryan Radia, at work on a legal brief in the case, notes that the TSA has devoted substantial resources to the PreCheck program during this time, rolling it out to additional airports. How can an agency pour resources into its latest greatest project, yet claim poverty when it comes to complying with the law?

So on Monday, I started a petition on Whitehouse.gov. It says the president should “Require the Transportation Security Administration to Follow the Law!

By the end of the day yesterday, the petition had garnered the 150 signatures needed to get it published on Whitehouse.gov. The petition says:

Defying the court, the TSA has not satisfied public concerns about privacy, about costs and delays, security weaknesses, and the potential health effects of these machines. If the government is going to “body-scan” Americans at U.S. airports, President Obama should force the TSA to begin the public process the court ordered.

That’s not a huge request. Getting 25,000 signatures requires the administration to supply a response, according to the White House’s petition rules.

The response we want is legal compliance. The public deserves to know where the administration stands on freedom to travel, and the rule of law. While TSA agents bark orders at American travelers, should the agency itself be allowed to flout one of the highest courts in the land? If the petition gets enough signatures, we’ll find out.

Signing the petition requires an email for confirmation, but it does not sign you up for any mailing list unless you volunteer for that. If you’re quite concerned about sharing an email, you can create a throwaway email on AOL or Yahoo! and use it once.

Please pass the word about the petition. If it gets to 25,000 people, the Obama administration will owe the public a response. I’ll report on it, and whether or not it’s satisfactory, right here.

This article originally appeared on the Cato Institute's Cato@Liberty blog.

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Jim Harper

As director of information policy studies, Jim Harper works to adapt law and policy to the unique problems of the information age, in areas such as privacy, telecommunications, intellectual property, and security. Harper was a founding member of the Department of Homeland Security's Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee and he recently co-edited the book Terrorizing Ourselves: How U.S. Counterterrorism Policy Is Failing and How to Fix It. He has been cited and quoted by numerous print, Internet, and television media outlets, and his scholarly articles have appeared in the Administrative Law Review, the Minnesota Law Review, and the Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly. Harper wrote the book Identity Crisis: How Identification Is Overused and Misunderstood. Harper is the editor of Privacilla.org, a Web-based think tank devoted exclusively to privacy, and he maintains online federal spending resource WashingtonWatch.com. He holds a J.D. from UC Hastings College of Law.

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