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Isn’t Flying Fun?

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Who else is excited for new innovations in pointless airport security?

The TSA is testing new requirements that passengers remove books and other paper goods from their carry-on baggage when going through airline security. Given the sensitivity of our reading choices, this raises privacy concerns.

Tests of the policy are underway in some small airports around the country, and DHS Secretary John Kelly recently said that “we might, and likely will” apply the policy nationwide. “What we’re doing now is working out the tactics, techniques, and procedures, if you will, in a few airports, to find out exactly how to do that with the least amount of inconvenience to the traveler,” he told Fox News. The policy may also apply to food items.

The rationale for the policy change given by Kelly and the TSA is that the imposition of growing fees for checked baggage by the airlines has prompted passengers to more densely pack their carry-ons, and that this has made it harder for screeners to identify particular items amid the jumble of images appearing on their screens. Laptops must already be pulled out separately because they are regarded as a heightened threat and can be better examined if they are not scanned in a bag with many other objects. It is not clear to me whether books are also regarded as a special threat or whether they are hard for the TSA to distinguish from explosives. I do know from a tour I was given of the TSA’s testing facility a few years ago that the scanners highlight items that are especially dense, and items that are organic (since explosives are made of organic, i.e. carbon-based, matter). That’s probably why the agency thinks it would speed things along to pull out food and books.

That said, books raise very special privacy issues. As my colleague Nicole Ozer has discussed, there is a long history of special legal protection for the privacy of one’s reading habits in the United States, not only through numerous Supreme Court and other court decisions, but also through state laws that criminalize the violation of public library reading privacy or require a warrant to obtain book sales, rental, or lending records.

And we know that in the airline screening environment in particular, there have been multiple cases where passengers have been singled out because of their First Amendment-protected expressions. For example, in 2010 the ACLU sued on behalf of a man who was abusively interrogated, handcuffed, and detained for nearly five hours because he was carrying a set of Arabic-language flash cards and a book critical of U.S. foreign policy. We also know that the DHS database known as the “Automated Targeting System,” which tracks information on international travelers, has included notations in travelers’ permanent files about controversial books in their possession.

A person who is reading a book entitled “Overcoming Sexual Abuse” or “Overcoming Sexual Dysfunction” is not likely to want to plop that volume down on the conveyor belt for all to see. Even someone reading a bestseller like “50 Shades of Grey” or a mild self-help book with a title such as “What Should I Do With My Life?” might be shy about exposing his or her reading habits. And of course someone reading Arab or Muslim literature in today’s environment has all too much cause to worry about discrimination. To at least one woman who experienced the new policy, “The scrutiny of my books, magazines and food feels even more invasive” than the body scanners, swabs, and pat-downs.

Is it justified?

Of course, it is true that TSA agents have long had the authority to search your bag if they see an anomaly or unidentifiable object in the x-ray, and such a search would include seeing any reading materials therein. The fact is, exposure of reading materials is part of the privacy that is lost when we allow bag searches. But this policy would lead to more routine and systematic exposure and, inevitably, greater scrutiny of passengers’ reading materials in the course of the screening process. (To be clear we’re talking strictly about physical reading materials here; there is no justification for a TSA screener to look through an e-book reader or other data-storage device. Users of e-books face different privacy concerns.)

If this passes, I will bring a copy of Lenin’s What is To Be Done every time I fly.

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