TSA begins searching books before travelers board planes

The TSA is testing a new policy under which passengers will be asked to separate their reading materials from the rest of their carry-on luggage so agents can fan through the pages to see if anything dangerous is hidden inside.

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Right now, the book searches are happening at just a few airports, but Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said in a recent television interview that the process could expand nationwide.

Though the TSA insists agents will not pay attention to the contents of your reading material, there’s no way to verify or enforce that neutrality. Some already believe the TSA doesn’t pick passengers for extra screening as randomly as it claims. And some say it would be easy for agents to unfairly scrutinize people reading controversial political or religious content — or just an author the agent happens to dislike.

The policy also raises a new privacy concern. The United States has “a long history of special legal protection for the privacy of one’s reading habits,” notes privacy expert Jay Stanley in an analysis of the TSA’s plan for the ACLU. That history includes “numerous Supreme Court and other court decisions, [plus] state laws that criminalize the violation of public library reading privacy or require a warrant to obtain book sales, rental or lending records.”

“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,” Stanley said. Or what if you’re learning Arabic or studying advanced mathematics? Critics have pointed out that both of those activities attracted airport security scrutiny even before implementation of a nationwide book screening. 

Some say scholars are especially at risk of running afoul of the TSA under this new program. “Academics are unsurprisingly big readers, and since we don’t simply read for pleasure, we often read materials with which we disagree or which may be seen by others as offensive,” said Henry Reichman, chair of the American Association of University Professors’ Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure.

“For instance, a scholar studying terrorism and its roots may well be reading — and potentially carrying on a plane — books that others might see as endorsing terrorism,” he said. 

Read more of this editorial piece at Rare.us.

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