Privacy, when is a violation meaningful?

A Philosopher’s Blog makes an interesting argument about the TSA and Privacy.  The gist of his argument is that the TSA is using prior threats to justify increased invasions of privacy while flying.  He then extends this line of reasoning to say that the TSA could be justified in extensive and intrusive means of preventing terrorism, because privacy is overridden by safety every time.  He uses this line of reasoning to conclude that the TSA body scans aren’t justified.

My question is what’s actually more intrusive, a pat down or a full body scan?  To me, having someone’s hands on my body is more personal, and thus more invasive, than having someone take a photo of me that can penetrate my clothing.  The full body scan doesn’t result in some kind of pornographic image — it’s simply an outline of your body without the clothing.  Frankly, I’d like to see what mine looks like, as I had a radical mastectomy on the left side, so my seemingly normal looking breast is really a prosthesis… I’m curious as to how that would look on the scan.  I’d also kind of love being able to whip out the fake boob and shock folks around me, but — perhaps thats one of the many ways I’m kind of odd.

I also wonder if a TSA full body scan is really an invasion of a meaningful kind of privacy?  For me, meaningful privacy involves protecting personal information or ideas.  A violation of meaningful privacy would result in my having to defend something or explain something I shouldn’t have to explain.

For example, I think that whether or not a person chooses to smoke pot is a personal choice that shouldn’t need to be explained.  I strongly suspect that Andy would agree.  Smoking a little, in your own home where you’re safe and not bothering anybody isn’t something another person has a right to judge. For this reason, I think that pre-employment drug tests are a larger violation of privacy than a TSA full body scan.

Think about it this way, in order to pass thru a TSA full body scan, do  you need to do anything other than not have a bomb in your panties?  You walk thru the scanner, the bored TSA agent thinks to him/herself that you could stand to lose a few pounds, and you’re off on your business trip to Omaha.  You don’t have to explain that you’ve got PMS and are a bit bloated or that you’ve just ended a long relationship and you stress eat, but that your new gym membership will take care of those extra few pounds.

In order to pass a pre-employment drug test, you need to abstain for a period of time and hope that the chemicals really do get out of your bloodstream.  This has the potential to impact your life for a few weeks, preventing you from enjoying something that should be legal and is generally harmless.  If the test is conducted immediately, you could be denied a job for something you do in your recreational time that doesn’t impact your ability to do a job, now that’s intrusive.

In most jobs the pre-employment urine test is the only time you are tested, so once you pass you can smoke just about any time.  Only jobs that involve public safety, or the military,  seem to have programs of random and continuing testing.  Since these kinds of jobs actually do have the potential to harm public safety, I can see the justification for those tests.  You’d have to be so obviously high that any McManager would see that you can’t work to make flipping a McDonald’s burger while baked a risk to public safety.

In the end, in order for meaningful privacy to be violated, the violation needs to impact your life or open you to unwarranted intrusions into your private live, thoughts or habits.  A TSA full body scan does none of these things, it just sees you in less detail than the person tasked to watch the one-way mirrors in the Target dressing room.

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