Agudath Israel of America is welcoming the decision by the Transportation Security Administration to remove the “backscatter” X-ray technology from security checkpoints at the nation’s airports. From the time the technology was first announced, the Orthodox Jewish group has voiced opposition to its use, which produces graphic images of passengers and was characterized by many as a “virtual strip search.”
“The religious sensitivities of many Americans were offended by the technology,” said Rabbi Abba Cohen, the organization’s Vice President for Federal Affairs and Washington Director, “and legitimate privacy issues were implicated by its use.” There were numerous meetings and communications over the years between Agudath Israel and the TSA concerning the X-rays and at one point several religious groups were invited to Washington by TSA for a demonstration of this and other technologies.
Public pressure eventually reached Congress, which ordered that privacy software be installed on the backscatter devices by June. When the manufacturer indicated that such adjustment could not be made, TSA decided to remove the machines.
The need for heightened airport security was recognized by the federal government after the September 11 attacks and other incidents where explosives were able to get past security checkpoints. While they have slowly been phased out, there currently remain 174 backscatter machines in 30 airports around the country.
Rabbi Cohen points out that, while the Jewish community is particularly sensitive to security concerns, “We strongly believed that religious and privacy issues needed to be taken into consideration as well and that seeking a reasonable accommodation, where both safety and civil rights issues would be met, was the appropriate course. We consistently encouraged the TSA to pursue new technologies that would achieve everyone’s mutual objectives.”
This approach—and persistence—apparently produced results. New X-rays have been developed and put into place that show passengers’ images as generic stick figures, while still being able to detect the presence of weapons or other explosive devices. Over 600 of these machines, commonly known as “millimeter wave” devices, can be found in 170 airports around the country.