Wednesday, November 24, 2010

National Opt-Out Day

As the use of whole-body imaging scanners increases at airport security checkpoints in the US, so does public objection to the technology. Voiced opposition is a combination of concern about the radiation exposure, objection to being seen virtually naked (and to the possibility of the resulting images being disseminated), and defence of the American "fourth amendment" which protects citizens from unreasonable searches.

There are two technologies being deployed, backscatter x-rays and millimetre-wave scanners. They both produce similar resolution images using different technologies. The US FDA says that passing through a TSA backscatter x-ray scanner delivers radiation equivalent to two minutes of airline flight or 42 minutes of everyday living. Other sources disagree on whether the effect is proportional.

The millimeter wave is electromagnetic radiation at the extreme high frequency end of the radio band. The waves are transmitted simultaneously from two antennas that rotate around the body of the person being screened. The reflected energy is detected and analyzed into a three-dimensional image. The millimetre waves have not been demonstrated to cause any health effects, but the technology is new and this study suggests that terahertz radiation may affect DNA.

There are not yet enough scanners to make them the standard. At checkpoints where the new scanners have been installed, selected passengers are asked to pass through them, with the option of declining the scanner and submitting instead to a thorough manual search, including (through clothing) the genital and breast areas. It certainly makes for good slogans. One way or another, the TSA is going to examine your junk. It's the porno scanners versus the grope search. If you want to get on an airplane, the choice is between having them look at your body or feel it. Excepting Islamic nations, the US has one of the most body-private cultures I know of, and this is where people are starting to draw the line.

A citizen has made a call for people to join in a national Opt Out Day, refusing the scanners and requesting the manual pat down. It's not that the organizers believe that the manual search is less invasive, but that they want opter-outers to receive their pat down in public so that occasional or unthinking travellers can see the extent of the examination. They have chosen November 24th because it is a day when many infrequent travellers who may not be familiar with all the new regulations are in the airports and then afterwards everyone will sit down with their families and perhaps make the airport experience, and whether it has gone too far, part of their family discussion. The action may impede efficient movement on one of the busiest air travel days in the US, but on the other hand if many people are refusing the scanners, then perhaps it leaves the scanners free as a fast lane for those not participating in the protest. Perhaps some of my readers will report back on what it was like. And to my American readers, whether you celebrate or mourn that day, I give you my best wishes for you and your family.

Airline pilots are especially incensed by the intrusion. I haven't been subjected to either type of scanner or the enhanced search yet, but it is inevitable with my travel pattern. I suppose I'll try each way at least once, and probably stick with the enhanced search. I usually prefer human contact over being shut up alone in a box. I have done only momentary research on the topic, but whenever something is proclaimed safe for humans, I remember hearing that in the 1950s they had x-ray machines in shoe stores so you could see how well your toes fit inside the shoes.

If you prefer your radiation in the visible spectrum and to see underwater creatures over blurrily naked Americans, offers some beautiful images, and the gear used to photograph them.


Anonymous said...

The National Opt-Out Day is a brilliant idea. A passive non-violent protest, Ghandi would be proud.

I had a really small basal cell carcinoma removed perhaps 8 years ago, so I'll pass onthe x-rays.

Unfortunately we don't get a choice, but I'd choose the hot blonde for the pat-down, rather than Bubba.

Or maybe if everyone moaning, making funny noises, breathe hard screamed the occaisional "yes! yes! yes!", and toss in a faked orgasm or three

Whatever might will cause the twits in Washington (motto: we do this because we can and we're afraid not to, not because it enhances security) to reconsider this security theatre.

YDAR said...

Similar to DDT, many things are deemed safe and then found to be unsafe once enough people have been exposed to them and the long term effects become evident - I always opt out and go for the manual search - the person having to perform the manual search is made just as uncomfortable as I am with the added bonus that I get to look them in the eye - who knows what inappropriate hi-jinks go on in that off-site room where some stranger is ogling me naked. The full body scanner even if proven safe over many years of use is too creepy - someone you don't know and can't see is looking at you naked - if they do that from outside your bedroom window it's a crime. Creepy. 1984 anyone?

TgardnerH said...

Side-note, on behalf of a friend of mine who wears the TSA uniform: It sucks for them too, so if you're going to make trouble, please do be polite to the screeners on the ground, because they don't get joy out of touching your junk either.

Christopher Thompson said...

I have had both now. I lost it with a woman in Dallas who made me walk through it twice and then berated me for leaving a Kleenex in my pocket. I loudly asked her if it "obscured her view of my balls".

The pat down was nice. I am single and work too much. I didn't have to buy anyone dinner, and once it was over I just went on my way. I was watching for telltale signs as to where there might me a comparison being made against other passengers--I am pretty competitive.

I think what frustrates me most is that is so darned inefficient. I still have to take my shoes and jacket off. Now there is a TSA employee behind me as I enter the machine and two in front--one to make sure I don't leave the machine until I am told to do so, and one with the nice ear piece who is constant communication to genital-central. I guess thy interpret my image in India and then tell the TSA person by radio to release me.

All very silly.

I guess my question is whether or not it makes Aviatrix and her colleagues feel safer that those behind the door have gone through this kind of security. God knows we ask enough of our flight crews already--they need to fly the plane, service it, implement fuel-saving economic model dunjour, be customer service, and thwart terrorism. I guess if I knew it mattered I would be more complaint.

GPS_Direct said...

As you have garnered a rather serious, and seemingly thoughtful and well-educated group of readers, I look forward to seeing more responses.

I completely understand the extremely difficult task that the TSA has been given (or is expected to carry out by the ill-educated masses). In general, I would be OK with most of the screenings, but having a healthy distrust of the government is a good thing in my book. The road of history is paved with well-meaning, good intentions that proved to be very harmful if not outright deadly!

Making this current situation worse is the complete lack of any understanding of the concerns on the part of TSA. "NO! We keep telling you the images can't be stored! Why don't you believe us?" Never mind that the published bid specs require the scanners to store images (for "tech support" purposes), how many folks don't have a hi-res digital camera in their cell phone these days? See a hottie, take a photo of the screen! Storage problem bypassed...

Worse yet is the utter lack of understanding about how this is all theatre for the tiny minded. Making me take my shoes off has saved how many planes to date? So far as I know, there was ONE attempted bombing via shoes, and they only started checking AFTER that. No great cries of "Ah ha! See? We told you!" when they found another shoe bomber trying to get through... And don't get me started on the liquid ban! My 3.5 oz shampoo bottle is too big and must be confiscated, but the 1 liter bottle of "Coke" delivered in a non-scanned truck, driven by a non-x-rayed / pat-down groped delivery guy is just fine to buy once I'm inside the "sterile zone."

Kinda like that line of Kool-aid on the ramp in Alaska, right? Inside is "secure," outside is not. If only people these days could think...

Garrett said...


Why should I be polite to people who have chosen to gaterape women and children for a paycheck?

I understand it pays better and comes with better health insurance than the mall security jobs they are otherwise qualified for. It is still an egregious abuse of power that they are willfully participating in, and for that they earn and deserve scorn.

Perhaps if your friend doesn't dealing with impolite people he can choose to work an honest job.

gmc said...

@gps_direct re can of coke...

I complained many times that after all the removal of shoes and confiscating of granny's knitting needles, they were still delivering large, heavy duty glass bottles to the door of the aircraft! (duty free booze). Does this still go on?

My second beef was the presence of metal knives in the kitchens and restaurants INSIDE the secure zone... hello!

The lack of consistency in the name of 'theatrics of security' is breathtaking...

D.B. said...

All the noise about what is safe, or efficient, or even "pleasurable" (for Mr. Thompson) misses the point. Theses invasive personal searches are illegal.

"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

The US Constitution, 4th amendment. It talks about searches, persons and need for warrants to perform a search of a person.

Personally, when selected (I fly frequently) I will request to see their warrant. I will then make sheep noises as I submit to being groped (and will request a female groper, so that I can at least try to enjoy the experience).

GeorgeG said...

I might be more willing to put up with these never-ending insults of intrusiveness by TSA if I knew that all the bureaucrats and politicians that approve of these measures were put through exactly the same treatment whenever they take to the air. How long would they and their staffs feel smugly satisfied with these “minor inconveniences” if they were forced through the screening lines themselves? Does the President and his family get scanned or groped before they take off on Air Force One?

Establishing a Government agency to guarantee “Transportation Security” was a huge mistake in my opinion, but the terrorists who attacked the twin towers succeeded in provoking such a level of panic in the U.S. that government assumed carte blanch to embrace all manor of arrogance and stupidity and people fell in line. I’m a U.S. citizen, but I am ashamed at my country’s response to that provocation. I feel angry and violated every time I am forced through airport security. I fly only when absolutely necessary.

coreydotcom said...

When I travel by airplane it is usually for a special event (i.e. going on vacation). I do about 2-5 round trips per year (including a couple for business). I agree that these searches are invasive and perhaps illegal (I haven't done that much research into it) but if I'm going on vacation, I don't even want to entertain the fact of possibly missing my flight because I want to stand up for my rights and make a scene. I know how bad that sounds, and please, call me out on it, but if I go on two vacations a year, I don't want to miss one. If selected, I would choose the pat-down.

With that said, a lot of chatter on online forums about the TSA officers has been of the type: "they're stupid, they don't do anything, they just stand around, they're on power trips, etc..." However, in my limited experience with the TSA I found that they are usually extremely nice people. Hopefully this doesn't come off as racist but my imagine of a TSA employee is that big friendly black guy telling me "step on through the metal detector sir". And when I have gotten the pat-down in the past (although I gather it has gotten more thorough) I found it was always done in a professional manner.

my rambling 2 cents.

Anonymous said...

For the TSA and DHS, a different organizational objective would make a world of difference.

Rather than "prevent another aircraft from getting hijacked", if the uppity-ups were bonused on "get our threat level down to green" I expect that a whole different approach to everything would ensue.

"Stop sending the armed forces into other people's countries and pissing them off" would probably be at the top of the list. Most of the owrld would lose interest in attacking the US if this one step were undertaken.

But just as "let's do layoffs to decrease costs" is the crutch of the managerially inept, "Does anybody here have any kids in the army? No? OK, let's go invade those buggers" is the easy way out for politicians.

Unknown said...

Wow! This is obviously a hot topic if numbers of comments are an indicator! Nice post 'Trix.

I'm flying today, just went through security and am now on board waiting for departure. No "opting out" observed here, but maybe its more of a US thing.

Cheers all!

Anonymous said...

I will bet the National Opt out day has little if any effect. Until the airline chiefs start putting pressure on the politicos, the only change will be an increase in passengers getting themselves thrown on the TSA no-fly list.

Luke said...

Anonymous -- look up the term "dhimmi" and then consider revising your statement.

Montana said...

The crazies that called for the National Opt Out Day, don't know what they are talking and the majority of our nation flew anyway. As soon as we get another terrorist attack these same crazies will be yelling that our government didn't do enough to detect them. They have no ideas on what should be implemented instead of what is in place, but I am sure that will call this a victory. What a bunch of empty suits that are just real haters not debaters.

Critical Alpha said...

The Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Fear Itself

I think it was a US president who said that. It's a pity that countries all around the world haven't taken notice of it.

One of the core planks of terrorism is to cause economic disruption. The more disproportionate our response to acts of terror, the more effective their strategy of disrupting our economy becomes.

None of the terror attacks around the world are trivial, whether it's the Bali bombing, the twin tower or the daily use of IEDs they are all gruesome and cowardly things.

The problem is that we are also being fearful and cowardly. We are increasingly engaging in simply disproportionate responses. Nothing in this world is safe, but lots of things that happen to us at airports are massively over the top and demeaning.

Spend a little of that money on better up stream intelligence and make airports smoother, freer places.

Anonymous said...

I flew on Wednesday, and they asked me to go through the X-ray scanner. I opted for the pat-down instead. And you know what? It wasn't much different from the ones I've had before. They did feel my back pockets and inside the belt area, but not any further than that. I think that some part of the problem can be ascribed to specific TSA agents or specific passengers that have problems. I did notice one difference in the security procedures: toner cartridges are now banned. It's funny how after every failed bombing plot, they ban whatever was used in that plot. They can't ever hope to ban everything and they can't anticipate what's used next. But, they did succeed in foiling a pretty significant number of plots, mostly by good old fashioned intelligence and investigation, not by forcing the public to submit to security theater on a massive scale. Still, in the TSA's defence, they do protect you against random crazies with knives or bombing planes for insurance money or bringing guns to have a workplace shooting on a plane (all real incidents that current security measures should hopefully prevent).

flightless bird said...

Good to see that someone opted out - although it seems that it isn't an option here in the UK.

"A New Zealander who was held up at Heathrow Airport for a day after refusing to get a body scan is returning home after being put onto another flight."

@Montana - I'm not sure if the point of National Opt Out Day was to not fly at all...

Jim said...

By all means do security scanning - I really don't care how much someone loves their .45, or how insecure they feel without it, or how much they want to be a hero by taking down the guy who get up to go to the washroom with a pained look on his face - leave it at home. Bad environment for things that go boom or bang.

At the same time, banning toner cartridges is a reinforcement of the usual practice of generals fighting the last war, or closing the door to the barn after the horse has bolted.

It is much more effective to think - about things like "Why would someone ship a printer via air freight to the US, when it would be cheaper and much simpler to buy a new one at the destination?.

I have suggested a similar idea to my company for trade shows - rather than renting a 20-something inch monitor for the booth for $800 for three days, why not just go buy one at Best Buy, use it for the duration, and then donate it to a local school when we are done?

Verification word: holes. As in the gaps in security that a "do everything to everybody" approach is trying to correct.

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