I am so glad I am not flying this week.
And that’s not just because of the typical Thanksgiving airport traffic that gives these particular seven days the nickname “amateur week.”
No, I’m glad I don’t have to deal with airport security and the Epic Fail of the TSA’s new body scanners and “enhanced” patdown policies.
Generally, I’ve been a cautious supporter of government security policies. Yes, the directives seemed to come without rhyme or reason. Yes, it seemed like they were always chasing the latest thwarted plot instead of being pro-active with developing new tools to isolate suspected terrorists before they even reached the security line. And yes, it seemed more like theater than actual prevention, particularly when you’d see grandmothers with pacemakers or small children given unnecessary extra treatment. But I fly often enough that adding a few steps to my traveling routine didn’t seem like too much of a big deal.
Until now. Here’s a few reasons why I’ve gone from rolling my eyes at the latest TSA announcement to outright anger at how the agency has overstepped its bounds:
Safety of the scanning devices: As most people have read by now, there are two types of full-body scanning devices, the millimeter wave scanner and the backscatter X-ray. The millimeter scan uses EHF radio frequency bands to produce a 3D image while the backscatter X-ray employs iodizing radiation for a front and back . Proponents of the machines say that the radiation dose that you receive from going through one of these machines is minimal, no more than the naturally occuring radiation that you are exposed to during a typical flight. Those who warn about the machines’ health hazards point out that even lower doses of radiation can affect certain at-risk populations differently and that the concentration of radiation that you’re receiving from the machines is higher than the TSA says it is.
My skepticism with the machines lies with the trust factor of those using them. I’ve had CAT scans, MRIs and other radiation-emitting medical procedures. Yet those were being operated by doctors and technicians who had specifically been trained in using machines and understand the correct dose of radiation. I’ll probably be dubbed a snob, but I don’t have confidence that the average TSA worker has the experience or the technical know-how to make sure that the machine is constantly working the way that it should.
Cost and roll-out of the devices: Remember the puffers? (also known as explosive trace portal device, which shot air on people to dislodge traces of drugs and explosives). Chances are, you don’t. That’s because the machines were only rolled out at a few airports to undergo testing. As this Detroit Free Press article points out, the machines were ultimately dumped by the TSA because “they were prone to false-positives and broke down after an average of 551 hours of use.” And that didn’t justify the $29.6 million price tag (for 207 machines). Oh yeah, and the TSA didn’t believe their front-line personnel had the skills to calibrate the machines properly.
At $150,000 to $200,000 per unit, the new body scanners are admittedly cheaper than the puffers. Yet they’ve been given a full-speed roll out without an adequate testing period. Every day, it seems, we hear of another instance where travelers are going through the machines and having to do a patdown anyway because the machine picked up something that wasn’t there. Why is the government investing so much in a technology that might have similar breakage and false-positive rates? Call me cynical, but I believe it has to do with the lobbying efforts of former Homeland Security head Michael Chertoff, whose company, The Chertoff Group, counts machine manufacturer Rapiscan Systems as a client.
Privacy concerns: Take a look at the images above. Does it make you uncomfortable to know that a picture like this is being taken of you? Of your kids and teen-agers? The images may be faceless, but it still amounts to a virtual strip search. You are showing your genitalia to strangers.
The TSA has assured people that the screeners viewing the images can’t see who is going through the machine and that the images won’t be saved. That’s WON’T and not CAN”T; the machines are designed to capture images and earlier this month U.S. Marshals Service admitted that it had saved thousands of images captured from a Florida checkpoint. Blurring of faces is a setting that can easily be undone. And while I can’t imagine someone being turned on by these pictures, screeners in other countries have already been caught using the images as porn.
Organizations that look out for our civil rights, such as Electronic Privacy Information Center and American Civil Liberties Union, have called for suspension of the machines because they say they violate the Fourth Amendment. The courts will decide that. All I know is that knowing that the government will have such a picture of me feels….icky and scary.
Fine, Chris, I can hear people saying. Don’t walk through the scanner. Exercise your right to opt out and request a pat-down. Because that’s better….why? Some thoughts on what the TSA’s new patdowns – which include touching breast and genitalia areas – are not only overkill, they are likely illegal:
Unfair treatment of people with disabilities: In the past week, we’ve read stories about a flight attendant who had to remove her prosthetic breast and a bladder cancer survivor who had his ostomy bag knocked off by a screener. Apparently the machines are only accurate enough to tell that someone has a device, and not what it is – which means nearly everyone with an artificial limb or medical aid will be singled out for aggressive patdowns. Speaking as someone with relatives who have artifical hips and such , I’m frankly outraged that they will be treated this way every time they fly. In the long run, there’s simply no way these machines are going to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act.
A Hobson’s choice for parents: Recognizing how sensitive “good touch, bad touch” is for kids, the TSA has said that children under 12 who opt-out won’t receive the enhanced pat downs. But what kind of lesson are we giving teen-agers? Touching “down there” is OK, as long as it’s done by a person in uniform? After covering sex scandals in the state police, I know that’s not a message I’d want to send.
Even the agents know the patdowns are wrong: For an excellent piece of counter-reporting, read blogger Steven Frischling’s interviews with TSA screeners forced to implement these patdowns. Turns out that the agents don’t like the new procedures anymore than the passengers do – because they know that touching people in this manner is a violation of privacy and personal space. Says one screener (the agents who replied were anonymous): “It is not comfortable to come to work knowing full well that my hands will be feeling another man’s private parts, their butt, their inner thigh.”
So what can people do to protest the TSA policies?
Consumer advocate Christopher Elliott, who has been doing a great job of reporting on the issue, has a list of options here. What I find most interesting is that some customers are asking airlines for refunds because they don’t want to participate in this TSA fiasco. They’d rather not fly than submit to policies that are allegedly designed to protect us.
Which really is the saddest commentary of all. The TSA formed after 9/11 to shield the skies from terrorists. Now, it seems, someone needs to protect us from the TSA.
I’m not expecting everyone to agree with me on this touchy (ha) issue. Will you go through the body scanners or do the patdown? Or have you decided that flying is not for you anymore? Feel free to leave your opinions in the comments section.
Note: I’ve noticed higher-than-average searches for information on how El Al conducts its security. Here’s an account of my first-hand experience with the Israeli airlines’ famed security tactics.