TSA’s scanning procedures invite traveler backlash

Credit: Courtney Wittekind/News Editor Credit: Courtney Wittekind/News Editor

With Thanksgiving and winter break just around the corner, Americans are preparing for all the standard holiday activities: eating turkey and stuffing, lighting candles and trees, hanging out with old friends, and being groped in the airport security line.

With over 60 airports across the country opting, in response to last winter’s “underwear bomber,” to install full-body scanners operated by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in place of normal metal detectors, travelers may now either pass through the new machines or subject themselves to a full pat-down.

First, the option the TSA wants you to choose: full-body scanners. The new machines are a bit of a mystery to the average traveler; using either backscatter X-ray or millimeter-wave technology, they take an image of you that superhero comic writers dreamed of, one showing guns, bombs, and your naked body. These images are meant to be viewed by another TSA agent in another room. Official policy notwithstanding, there are indications that the images may be saved, hung around the office to laugh at, and then later, of course, leaked to the Internet. But even if you aren’t concerned with displaying your naked body to those the TSA deems worthy, a decision to enter some of these machines ignores their possible and relatively unstudied health risks, which are important enough to have caused pilots to seek (and receive) an alternative screening method.

Suppose, then, that the full-body scanner doesn’t sound right for you. You can choose a full pat-down instead. As a result, stories and videos of overly abusive and invasive groping techniques have spread across the Internet. These two techniques have caused the TSA to continue to receive more bad publicity than most government agencies can dream of. If miniaturizing your liquids and removing your shoes wasn’t enough, airport security theater seems to be on a never-ending rise.

But as every media organization, blogger, and traveler with a Twitter account seems to be complaining, it appears a backlash may be near. Orlando’s Sanford Airport is opting to switch to a private company for security instead of the TSA, and New York’s city council is planning legislation to ban backscatter scanners. Hopefully now, with the opposition of pilots, flight attendants, airlines, airports, and local legislators, the TSA will have to actually consider both the security benefits and the customer impediments of its requirements. But this winter, your best bet is still to hop into a line that hasn’t yet been upgraded from a metal detector to a pornoscanner.