Magazine Feature / People

Professor says security, privacy a tough balancing act

The next time passengers fly out of Denver International Airport, they may be strip-searched and not even realize it.

That’s how privacy expert and DU Sturm College of Law Professor John Somadescribes what a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) machine does to travelers. The TSA admits the device, which it uses to scan for weapons and bombs, bounces radio waves off skin and produces an anatomically explicit image.

Earlier this summer Soma was quoted in the Denver Post as saying whole-body imaging “is an extremely high invasion of privacy.”

And today, Soma’s criticism is still biting: “It’s the equivalent of a no-physical-touch strip search. A strip search is generally considered an invasion of privacy.”

But the answer of how to protect both lives and privacy is murky at best.

“The answer isn’t concrete,” says Soma, executive director of DU’s Privacy Foundation. “We have to balance ever-changing threats and constantly changing technology. The answer has to be more of an approach or process for a solution today that probably won’t work in five years. That’s just the nature of technology law.”

Soma says technology can be part of the answer, but that any technology that’s used “is a double-edged sword” in that it will protect against threats while at the same time it will likely invade privacy.

“Anything we do is going to negatively impact privacy,” he says.

Soma adds there are two rules of privacy in a digital environment: “One is that once data is captured digitally; then it’s stored forever. Memory storage is cheap. Studies have shown it’s cheaper to store data than to have resources committed to delete it. And [the] second rule is, unless there’s a policy to destroy it, the stored data will be used in the most negative way against the legitimate owner of the information.

“It’s Murphy’s law of privacy.”

To improve privacy, TSA blurs the faces of passengers, examines the images in a remote room and offers no possibility for images to be stored, printed, transmitted or reproduced, according to David Bassett, TSA’s federal security director in Denver.

Soma says TSA’s efforts to keep the images private and not to store them are “commendable” because TSA is trying to strike this balance between security and technology.

“But the devil is in the details of enforcing these policies,” Soma adds. “It’s not commendable if they don’t enforce those policies.”

[Editor’s note: Soma has led several research projects for the Privacy Foundation, a DU affiliated organization that publishes research findings on privacy issues and holds seminars on privacy. The next seminar is slated for Oct. 24 at the Sturm College of Law, 10 a.m.–12:45 p.m. The cost is $20 for the public and free for DU staff, faculty and students. To register, visit or contact Diane Bales at 303-871-6580]

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