Smile! The TSA is taping you — and here’s what you need to know about it

You may have noticed that the Transportation Security Administration, the agency charged with safeguarding America’s transportation systems, has a thing for video.

Last week, when it was accused of taking a passenger’s child during screening, TSA released footage of the woman that shows it never happened. And yesterday, it posted images of Rep. Jason Chaffetz’s screening incident at Salt Lake City International Airport (scroll down for the videos). The congressman had reportedly gotten into a verbal scuffle over the agency’s use of full-body scanning technology.

You may have also noticed that just yesterday, the agency announced $4.9 million in funding for airport surveillance at Philadelphia International Airport. That’s a whole lotta taping going on.

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So what’s the deal with the TSA and video? I asked the agency.

Closed-circuit television technology (CCTV) is in place at hundreds of airports across the country, although the TSA declines to name the ones that have it, and, more importantly, which ones don’t. The government doesn’t own the CCTV systems. Instead, TSA partners with the airport to fund and install cameras at security checkpoints. TSA provided $70 million in funding to install CCTV installation at 20 airports in fiscal 2009, according to the agency.

How long is the footage archived? While each airport has its own policies regarding archived videos and the length of time they are saved, TSA includes an agreement for airports to archive a minimum of 30 days.

There is no audio. Airport CCTV “is video only,” according to TSA.

Who has access to the footage? Airports, local law enforcement officers and TSA all can view the tape.

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How about air travelers? The answer was a little vague. “The airport authority in partnership with TSA makes the determination on who has access to view the video,” a spokeswoman told me. In other words, you might be able to view footage of your own screening just for the asking, but I wouldn’t count on it. You might need to get a court order or file a Freedom of Information Request (FOIA).

So who decides whether the video is released? It depends on the investigative, security and privacy considerations, as well as airport authority approval. “In the interest of transparency, in some instances we will post the video before the FOIA process is complete,” a spokeswoman told me.

I’m left with the impression that TSA’s video policy, like its CCTV systems, is a work in progress. If the agency can decide to post screening footage of anyone, for any reason, but average citizens may have to file a FOIA request for the same consideration, I think there are those who might consider that a double standard. But is there a better way? Can all CCTV material be posted to a public site? Should it be?

The existence of these videos also raise larger questions about a surveillance society and our right to privacy. Questions that can’t be answered in this post, but are certainly worth asking.

Personally, I don’t have a problem with the TSA taping my screening. But if it does, I think it’s only fair that I’m allowed to videotape or photograph my own screening, too. And that isn’t always allowed, even though technically, it should be, according to the agency.