by Kashmir Hill, Forbes Staff
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Welcome to The Not-So Private Parts where technology & privacy collide
9/06/2011 @ 5:57PM
TSA agents are on the front lines for public fire over aggressive screening procedures
Attacking the TSA for its privacy-invasive screening procedures has become a favorite activity for many journalists, especially Matt Drudge. TSA horror stories are often featured prominently on The Drudge Report and he has taken to calling Janet Napolitano, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (of which the TSA is a part) “Big Sis.”
Napolitano, who doesn’t think Drudge “means [the nickname] kindly” said at a recent Politico event that Drudge is wrong in describing DHS programs as Orwellian and that “the privacy impact of new airport screening technology and similar programs are thoroughly vetted before they are implemented,” in Josh Gerstein’s words.
“We want to be conscious of civil liberties and civil rights protections—and we are,” Napolitano said, as reported by Politico.
On the same day as this piece came out, TechDirt reports on a passenger who would likely disagree with the Secretary. After a particularly aggressive patdown in March that might be better termed a feel-up, advice blogger Amy Alkon graphically described how she sobbed loudly while a TSA agent put her hands “into” her — four times. She screamed “You raped me” after the LAX patdown and took the agent’s name with plans to file charges of sexual assault. Those plans fell through after consulting an attorney, but she did blog about it and included the agent’s name, thereby inflicting her own assault — on the agent’s Google search results.
The TSA agent then hired a lawyer who contacted Alkon asking her to remove the post, threatening her with a defamation lawsuit, and asking for a settlement of $500,000. “Rape is a very serious charge,” writes lawyer Vicki Roberts on Thedala Magee’s behalf. She also says that Alkon, on a return trip to the airport in May called her client “a bad person” who had “sexually molested” her.
Free speech lawyer Marc Randazza has stepped in to assert Alkon’s right to post about her patdown experience, and to defend both her definition of the patdown as rape and, regardless of that, her right to rhetorical hyperbole. Techdirt has a copy of the letter Randazza drafted in response to the defamation threat.
“After [the agent Thedala] Magee’s assault on Ms. Alkon’s vagina and dignity, Ms. Alkon exercised her First Amendment right to recount this incident to others in person and through her blog,” writes Randazza. “This was not only her right — it was her responsibility.”
Forced to perform patdowns now required by law, TSA agents are the ones who have to face the public’s anger. Texas abandoned its effort this year to pass a law making overly aggressive patdowns a misdemeanor subjecting agents to arrest and a fine, but bloggers can certainly keep on trying the agents in the court of public opinion. I have some sympathy for the agent whose name will now be linked with rape in Google results for eternity — though it should surely serve the purpose of making her a bit less touchy-feely during patdowns — but I hope Randazza and Alkon persevere. TSA screening procedures have already taken a toll on the Fourth Amendment; let’s not add the First Amendment to the list of victims.