Rights vs Security: The new TSA pat downs and body scanners

by Chris on November 22, 2010

The TSA formed after 9/11 to shield the skies from terrorists. Now, it seems, someone needs to protect us from the TSA. Why I’m glad I’m not flying this week.

TSA body scanners fail

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.

Backscatter X-ray image, airport security, TSA

 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.

Millimeter wave scanner image, airport security, TSA

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.

| Chris Gray Faust is a veteran journalist, travel expert, social media butterfly - and editrix of this site. Like what you read? Check out her writing, editing and social media services.

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Rob November 22, 2010 at 3:59 pm

For me – and I emphasize that it’s my personal decision only – I’m avoiding the scanners not because of the privacy concerns, but because of the health concerns. I’m not particularly worried about people – who can’t otherwise see me – seeing one of these images of me, or even saving it. But like I said, that’s a personal decision.

I think the much more important question is the health concerns. I’m not convinced that these scanners are completely harmless. But if they are found to be “harmless”, that will only be the case if they’re working correctly. Who is monitoring them? Who is making sure that the software isn’t generating a higher dose of radiation? No complex computer system – anywhere in the world – is bug free. So who’s checking on a regular (daily? hourly?) basis to make sure that these devices are operating as designed? And can the TSA tweak the settings, to get better pictures? What kinds of studies will be involved when they want to do that? Are there restrictions that prevent it from being changed by an unauthorized person? Even by a local station manager?

Frankly, I think TSO’s should be worried too – who is making sure that the machine aren’t leaking radiation onto any screeners standing nearby?

Finally, to step back to the privacy question for just a moment, the TSA insists that the images are not being saved today. Fine. When a potential terrorist boards a flight in LA, intending to blow up a plane with the bomb inside his underwear, how long will it take the TSA to insist that the images MUST be saved “in the interest of security”? So that they can be reviewed and figure out how someone got through. But they promise that the images will ONLY be saved for 24 hours. Just long enough to make sure that no terror attacks were attempted. And then they really really promise that they’ll be deleted.

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Judy Wells November 22, 2010 at 3:59 pm

Great post, Chris. I’ve traveled in some pretty terror-prone countries during particularly sensitive times and I’ve never experienced anything like this. Why do we need it and they don’t? Terrorism has been around longer in other countries than ours.

As a frequent enough flier with two artificial knees and an artificial hip, I always get the pat downs, some more intrusive than others, and it annoys the h out of me. I do not fit anyone’s profile of a terrorist. Eye, finger, ear, voice recognition, anything but this. There’s gotta be a better way.

I’ll keep traveling and flying, but I sure hope TSA backs off a bit before my next flight in December. If someone wants to ogle and get their kicks from my almost 70-year-old body, it’ll be a thrill for me too, but I DEMAND anonymity! Or at least a drink first.

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Gayle November 22, 2010 at 4:03 pm

Nicely put, Chris. I flew a couple of weeks ago and was afraid I’d have to deal with this but the scanners were not yet installed in the Newark terminal I flew out of.

For myself, I’d much rather be scanned than groped. However, I have two young daughters and for them, I don’t find either choice acceptable. They are under age 12 but won’t be forever. I find it sad to think that I’m going to have to keep my girls from flying in the future or have them subjected to either of these procedures. Hopefully by that time, all of this will have been deemed illegal and we’ll have found better ways of keeping passengers safe.

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Becca November 22, 2010 at 4:41 pm

Fabulous, thoughtful, non-alarmist piece, Chris. I’m just happy I have no plans to fly for a couple months, ad am crossing appendages, probably fruitlessly, that this intrusive practice will be eased before I travel again.
PS, thanks for quoting my favorite newspaper, the Free Press!
PPS, this is the best they can do for porn? Ew. In so many ways.

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Bill November 22, 2010 at 5:31 pm

Chris – Fabulous post. This is indeed a total epic FAIL. TSA employees who perform the “enhanced pat-down” groping use the SAME blue glove for hundreds and hundreds of passengers. Some of them report being touched directly on buttocks, breasts and genitals. Will that blue glove touch genital warts, a herpes outbreak or that big guy’s dirty hind end Before or After they touch you? This is legally mandated vector for spread of illness. It’s nuts.

To the ADA issue, add the psychologically damaged victims of sex crimes who want to fly. Principally women and children, they now have no options. More alarming is the fact that convicted sex offenders could obtain employment with the TSA at least thru 2004 provided that convictions were over ten years old. This is a matter of public record that can be verified by reviewing their website. TSA employment screening for such convictions is now secret.

The whole thing is nuts. I’m participating in the http://www.WeWontFly.com National Opt-out Day event at my city’s airport. We should be able to retain our dignity and our rights. Thanks for addressing this issue, Chris.

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Lisette November 22, 2010 at 6:59 pm

Great post Chris! I have just returned from India last week and it was uncomfortable enough there having to get the ‘pat down’ at most of the major attractions (although the ladies line was a lot shorter so I got through speedily)
I think this hysterical approach is unnecessary and wish we could go back to the days pre 9/11

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Thomas November 22, 2010 at 11:52 pm

Risk of dying in car crash: 1 : 6,500 per year
Risk of dying from walking across street: 1 : 48,500 per year
Risk of dying if terrorist were able to hijack one US commercial flight per week: 1 : 135,000 per year
Risk that Americans will react like idiots to terrorism: 1:1

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Charles Bell November 23, 2010 at 9:29 am

In the not so recent past, there was Clear. This was a service I think is being restarted. Why can’t this be an option for frequent travelers? It prescreens rather thoroughly and would allow travelers another option. For my child, the current options are bad and worse. As a health care worker, I have had more than a casual exposure to radiation. It seems dangerous to me expose so many people to an unknown amount of accumulated radiation during the duration of the use of this technology. As an aside, the medical field is trying to limit the amount of radiation people are exposed to; that exposure to radiation is to help diagnose abnormalities that may be life threatening.

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Kara November 23, 2010 at 12:17 pm

My kids and their cousins are flying with their grandmother this week. Call me overprotective helicopter mom, but I am petrified of what might happen to them. Too many freaky stories circulating on the Internet (I know these are a handful of incidents vs. the millions of people going through airport security in recent weeks, but still).

Grandma has been instructed to have the kids go through a body scanner if given a choice; we feel this is the lesser of two evils at this point (mind you not that much of a lesser evil).

My kids have also been instructed to request same-gendered TSA agents if they are told they need to be patted down. Again, heard tales of female TSA agents patting down little boys and men patting down girls.

Not happy about any of it.

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Deb J November 23, 2010 at 1:38 pm

Chris, I absolutely agree with you! Thanks for the thoughtful and well written post. Will definitely share this one!

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tanniah November 23, 2010 at 7:52 pm

In addition to the ADA issues, I’m wondering how an employer can force this to be a required part of your job – especially in CA, where acts by third parties are still the responsibility of the employer as soon as they are made aware. I spelled it out here, but love the ADA angle you also came up with! It looks like we are one or two lawsuits away from business travel dramatically dropping.
http://www.careertuning.com/1511/tsa-groping-can-employees-be-forced-to-fly/

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Melissa November 24, 2010 at 12:39 am

I’m a 19 year old female and I’m flying out tomorrow by myself at Boston Logan Airport, and I’m extremely nervous. I don’t want to go through either of these processes and I’m not quite sure what I’ll do. Thanks for the post.. I’m trying to get as much information on both of them as I can to help make my decision. Any one have any advice?

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Amanda November 28, 2010 at 4:42 am

So I will be flying Christmas Eve from Portland, OR to Phoenix AZ. I consider myself a private person and I am not thrilled by the two choices at hand. I am have having a rough time deciding whether I am up for a porn-scan or a public feel-up. In all honesty I am probably going to be opting out of the scan. I think I can handle the few minutes of public groping by another woman; but wondering about those images of my naked body floating around cyberspace forever? That’s not something I am prepared to deal with. And no I absolutely do not trust the TSA.

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Michael December 10, 2010 at 8:39 am

I refuse to fly commercially in the US. I have refused that since, I think, 2002 or 2003. Even back then, I got searched three (!) times on every leg of each flight. My checked baggage got torn apart and I was *required* to stand there and look like I was happy about it. No, I don’t look like an Arab (not that it should matter).

The TSA, so far as I am concerned, is filled with and run by criminals. Yeah, I know, painting with a broad brush and all that. Right. I’ve had my luggage destroyed by the TSA (I don’t mean opened up, rummaged through, and had my cool stuff stolen, I mean literally the bag was ripped open–and no, it wasn’t locked). I saw that the TSA guy who was stealing SO much stuff and selling it on eBay finally got busted. And I saw that a number of the felons hired by the TSA were finally let go. So? The people who run it have done absolutely zero to improve security over what it was in 2001. All that has happened is “security theater” and offenses against the constitution. I, for one, refuse to voluntarily surrender my 4th Amendment rights. I’m done.

And if you believe that images of hot chicks aren’t being kept by the losers in back, you are incredibly naive.

It’s a tough economy, and to some extent I sympathize, particularly up near Detroit and the whole region of devastated rust belt cities. But, that doesn’t mean we sell our souls to The Man and act like guards in prisons or concentration camps. I’ll go hungry before I play that game. It’s a moral choice; I’m made mine and I’m happy to either drive to where I need to go, or not go at all.

I am an American. I was born free. I have served my country, putting my life on the line to protect my people from harm. I have seen this kind of crap in other countries. The intent is not improved security on-site, but rather to show the plebes who the bosses are, and it’s not them. It’s designed by psychologists to be degrading and to reduce your willingness to resist. That it is happening in my country tells me that my sacrifices were for nothing. It was a waste of my time protecting people who will bend over for this.

For the duration, the commercial airlines are dead to me.

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Chris December 10, 2010 at 10:50 am

Michael – Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I do think that the TSA has been crossing the line here, to the point where others will be making the same decision not to fly that you are.

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