The next time you’re at an airport, you may be in for a novel security experience.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has recently been trying out a bag-check system that allows agents to search passengers’ books, according to The Week. The new screening involves asking travelers to place all their reading materials, as well as snacks, into a bin for scanning. Officials aren’t said to be concerned regarding the content of people’s books but may flip through them to make sure nothing is stored between the pages, The Sacramento Bee reported.
The search technique is being tested as a way to improve security, as tightly packed suitcases can be difficult to see through. Books and dense foods in bags can also sometimes block TSA agents’ view of the other contents.
Only a few airports in places such as Detroit, Boston and Phoenix have seen trial runs so far, but the threat of a book search has already begun to worry privacy experts. Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote in a Friday blog post that the system could quickly become invasive.
“A person who is reading a book entitled ‘Overcoming Sexual Abuse’ or ‘Overcoming Sexual Dysfunction’ is not likely to want to plop that volume down on the conveyor belt for all to see. Even someone reading a bestseller like ’50 Shades of Grey’ or a mild self-help book with a title such as ‘What Should I Do With My Life?’ might be shy about exposing his or her reading habits,” Stanley said. “And of course someone reading Arab or Muslim literature in today’s environment has all too much cause to worry about discrimination.”
Stanley pointed to a 2010 case the ACLU took up after a college student was detained for questioning because he had English-Arabic flash cards that included the word “bomb” in his pockets. The student in question, Nicholas George, ultimately won a $25,000 settlement in 2015, according to CBS News.
“Is this really the image of our country that we want to project to visitors?” The Seattle Review of Books’s Paul Constant wrote in a blog post earlier this month. “Welcome to America—now let us probe every single page of your reading material?”
Darby LaJoye, the TSA’s assistant administrator for the office of security operations, told The Wall Street Journal in May that changes to the screening process have been a long time coming. But he said the organization is keeping efficiency and efficacy in mind.
“It is not any one particular item we’re worried about. It’s not about paper or food or anything,” he said. “It’s how best to divest those items.”