Is Airline Security Within Reach? TSA Will Now Swab Passengers' Hands

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The next time you go through an airport security checkpoint, be prepared to reach out and give a Transportation Security Administration employee a hand; the agency will now be randomly swabbing hands and baggage for traces of explosives.

As a result of the failed Christmas Day terrorist attack, the TSA announced yesterday they will increase security measures by using hand-held devices to perform Explosive Trace Detection (ETD) tests.

Tests will be conducted with portable machines at locations throughout the airport, including in security lines and at gates. The entire procedure takes only a few seconds, and involves an agent taking a trace sample, which the ETD unit then analyzes for residue. The TSA said that swabs will be disposed of after each use to "ensure the health of travelers."

In a blog post, the TSA said the test will be performed on "laptops, shoes, film, cell phones, bags, wheelchairs, hands, casts-you name it." The TSA also said they have ETD machines at every checkpoint in the country, and it is a quick way to "immediately strengthen security using existing technology."

"The point is to make sure that the air environment is a safe environment," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told CNN in a report published February 17th. "We know that al Qaeda [and other] terrorists continue to think of aviation as a way to attack the United States. One way we keep it safe is by new technology [and] random use of different types of technology."

Jay Stanley, an attorney and privacy expert with the American Civil Liberties Union, told CNN the organization has "always supported explosive detection as a good form of security that doesn't really invade privacy."

Stanley advised against screening in a disproportionately discriminatory way, and also said the testing should not be used to detect contraband unrelated to security, such as drugs. "Under the Constitution, searches in airports are only for the purpose of protecting the security of airline transportation; they are not general law enforcement stops. And so it wouldn't be permissible for the government to use these trace portal detectors to look for drugs," he explained.

Although the TSA said the machines test solely for explosives, Stanley said legal substances such as fertilizers and heart medicines might set the machines off. The ACLU would like to ensure that people whose test results in a "false positive" are treated respectfully.

The TSA currently has over 7,000 machines and has used $15 million in federal stimulus money to purchase 400 more. In addition, $60 million of the President's fiscal budget for 2011 has been set aside to purchase around 800 more machines.
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