OK, let’s be frank. I hate airports. No, let me reword, that: I HATE airports.
Get me in the plane, start driving me around in the sky, no problem. Planes feel just like roller coasters, and my brain is convinced I’m just riding a big track I can’t see. As long as the air conditioning’s running I can handle them. (Thank you Northwest for teaching me to include that little caveat.)
But airports? They’re full of hundreds of people rushing about hoping to make flight that might be cancelled “just because”, connections are always late, and you never know you’re in the right spot. One too many hours standing at the wrong gate then running across airports has ruined the experience of sitting around on dirty uncomfortable furniture in freezing cold or stuffy hot seating areas breathing dry stale air that’s vaguely scented of jet fuel fumes. You know, in case that experience needed to be ruined.
And then there’s the security measures.
(This is really damned long, so here’s a cut.)
The first few times I flew, pre-9/11, I didn’t mind security. It does make sense to ensure that passengers aren’t armed to the teeth because there are unfortunately a few crazies in the world. And in a time when there were metal detectors being installed in the Lancaster City schools, having metal detectors at the airport made sense.
In most of those cases, I was also either flying with my immediate family (parents, etc.) or with the school district, whose best interests were in getting all 200+ of us through the airport as efficiently as possible.
After 9/11, flying became harder, rapidly.
What it’s like to fly with Cystic Fibrosis
First, know that most of my flying over the years has included traveling with my husband. He’s got cystic fibrosis, which means packing for us is an adventure. Once piece of ($25,000) medical equipment must be checked because the damn thing won’t fit in the cabin. The rest goes into his carry-on: nebulizers, tubes, and eighteen prescription drugs. The nebulizer looks like a big scary machine, so of course it’s assumed to be a bomb. The 6-plug power strip could be a bomb. (Or it could be necessary to run the medical equipment since hotels are notoriously low on power outlets.) The rest of the drugs consist of a lot of little liquids. The space in Nighthawk’s carry-on that isn’t filled with drugs, or drug equipment is filled with doctor’s letters and the manuals for the equipment to convince the TSA he’s not trying to blow up the plane.
(Note: we haven’t tried to fly together since he was diagnosed with insulin-dependent diabetes. I’m sure that’ll be a great joy.)
Since Nighthawk isn’t going to be carrying anything that’s actually useful to him on the plane in his carry-on, and he has no room for his personal valuables, I have the rest. “The rest” is usually two laptops (mine and his), the camera, card reader, chargers, batteries, usually some sort of gaming system (game boys, and before that a PSOne), and whatever we’re actually planning to use to occupy ourselves in the airport.
We carry an entire Radio Shack with us when we fly because we’re going to be gone for a while, or we wouldn’t be flying. It’s too much of a hassle to fly for a short trip when you’ve got medical issues. You go for a week or more, or you don’t bother. And when you have 1 1/2 hours of medical therapy every day, you need something to do at the hotel. The free cable in the room isn’t going to cut it. The Internet can’t be counted on as a reliable source of entertainment. These days I could probably get by on just an iPad — in fact, that’s part of the reason why we bought it — but there’s two of us, and that means two sets of entertainment devices no matter how slimmed-down they are.
Sure, we could check some of this stuff, but since the big piece of medical equipment we checked already looks like a bomb, we’re pretty sure our stuff’s going to be searched, and why give unscrupulous people a chance to lift some of our gadgets out of our suitcases?
When we try to pass through security together, it goes something like this: he goes first, puts his belt, shoes, coat, and pocket junk into bin 1, puts his carry-on behind it on the belt. I go second, with my shoes and coat and pocket junk in bin 1, my laptop in bin 2, his laptop in bin 3, the liquids in bin 4, and the carry-on with the rest of our belongings behind it. Even if I accidentally leave something metal in my pockets and have to go through the detector twice, I’m usually through security and repacked before the security folks are done discussing Nighthawk’s carry-on, checking his shoes for explosives, and generally convincing themselves that this nebulizer is just like the other 50 they’ve seen this week.
And you know, I’m OK with all of that. Yeah, it’s a pain. Yeah, I feel bad for whoever’s in line behind us, but we’ve not had our personal privacy invaded or anyone truly stupid interfere.
The If/Then of TSA security
When I’m not flying with Nighthawk, I’m generally by myself or one or two co-workers. Security is much easier to pass through when your life is “normal”, it seems. I can get through security on one or two bins, not four. But even then the goofiness of it makes a profound statement. The TSA’s constant “upgrades” of US flying security policies read like an if-then statement of events that have already occurred (almost all of which have failed) and the new protections we patch on top of existing protections to try to prevent repeats of already-failed security breaches.
- If they took over the plane using box cutters, then take away all sharp objects. (Note: knitting needles are not sharp objects. Either that or knitters can’t be terrorists. I’m not sure which.)
- If they tried to blow up a plane using explosives disguised as water bottles, then take away all liquids under 3.4 ounces. (The UK is lifting this restriction by the way. Now we just need to catch up.)
- If they tried to blow up a plane using explosives disguised as shoes, then make everyone take their shoes off.
- If they tried to blow up the plane with explosives in their underwear. then….
Hey, look! We have this great new technology that lets us use x-rays to look through a person’s clothes at their skin! It also lets us see what other items they might be carrying under their clothes. That will keep them from putting the ingredients for explosives in their underwear!
So here’s the new drill as I understand it, although I haven’t experienced it yet:
You get into the line for security. You still have to show your ID and boarding pass to prove you do in fact want to get on an airplane today. You still have to dump your pockets, coat, and shoes on the conveyor. You still have to separate your laptop from the rest of your stuff (either by unfolding your expensive TSA-approved bag or by taking it out). From there, you might just go through the metal detectors.
Alternatively, you might end up going through the new extra screening measures. If the TSA has probable cause (you keep setting off the metal detectors, or they identify something suspicious in other way), you’ll probably go through the second level of screening. Additionally though, passengers can be pulled randomly out of line for the metal detectors and routed to the whole-body scanners (usually backscatter x-ray machines) even if there’s nothing that makes you look or seem suspicious.
What the hell’s a backscatter machine?
In airports all over the country, the has been installing and using a new scanning device called a backscatter x-ray, which produces a full-body scan of an airline passenger. The goal is to identify hidden weapons, explosives, and other contraband.
The backscatter machines are x-ray machines, and as such, continual exposure to the machines may not be great for your health. The Wikipedia article on backscatter x-rays does a good job of summing up the arguments over whether the devices are safe. I’ll sum them up further:
- For: It’s less radiation than you get just walking around, using your cell-phone, or riding on the plane in the first place.
- Against: Because it’s not the same as “normal” x-ray radiation in that it doesn’t pass through your skin, you’re getting a higher dose of radiation on your skin than the rest of your body, which is dangerous unless studied further.
Let’s assume the radiation limits are low, but after a lot of scans (as in “thousands”), they would be dangerous. I’m not sure what it means for people who work with x-rays for a living, like those in the medical industry, or those whose exposures are for medicinal reasons, like lung patients who have their chests x-rayed on a regular basis. (A recent study out of England and Kuwait suggests that the rising incidences of thyroid cancer may be related to frequency in dental x-rays. And hey, you only get those once a year!)
I’m wondering – and doubting – if anyone whose equipment produces radiation is looking at the radiation problem holistically. Say you work in the ER of a hospital that has one of those portable x-ray machines. You work around x-rays, you get x-rays, you fly three times a year. At what point do you pass safe levels?
I don’t know, and to be honest, it’s not the biggest of worries for me. The privacy issue is much bigger for my personal anxiety.
Here’s where I become an asshole and a snob about my privacy
The backscatter machine will take a picture of you as if you are naked, accurate enough to indicate your gender, whether you were circumcised, etc.. It may also allow the person viewing the image to see confidential medical information, such as whether you’re wearing a prosthesis, you’re transsexual, or you use a colostomy bag.
You’ve seen what you look like in your underthings, and worse. The backscatter machine reveals your nipples, the folds of your vagina or the tip of your penis, the way your underwear hugs your ass too tight and folds the skin in that need-to-drop-10-lbs way, and the floppiness (or lack thereof) of your gut, to a security agent you’ve never met.
Some people say that’s not the same as seeing you naked. I say I wear a bra specifically to keep people from seeing my nipples and I dress to try to disguise my ample gut. I say that the backscatter machine is producing a view of my body that I don’t want advertised. It’s a view people don’t get when I go to work, go to the pool, or even go to the doctor’s office. That’s pretty damn personal.
When you go to the doctor for the most invasive procedure you can imagine (in my case, it’s an OB-GYN appointment), you’re paying a professional with decades of education and significant experience, and training on how to handle both the human body and the human psyche, to look at only parts of you naked, and touch only the bits they absolutely have to. And they know it.
The TSA agent in the booth trying to figure out if you’ve packed your underwear full of explosives is not a doctor. He or she is certainly not being paid the same money to be discreet or professional. I’m willing to bet in most cases we’re not talking about someone with either the education or training that a doctor receives. This is more akin to having the cleaning staff check you out.
Yes, the fact that I equate the money that a TSA agent gets paid to a janitor makes me a snob, and yes, the fact that I think someone making that money with that training won’t be as professional (as a group) as medical professionals who have taken the Hippocratic oath makes me an asshole and a snob. It doesn’t mean every TSA agent is unprofessional, uneducated or untrained. It doesn’t mean every TSA agent is rude or uncouth. It also doesn’t change the fact that I don’t want them seeing pictures of me naked.
The pat-down: the greater of two evils
If you opt out of the scanner (which according to some reports requires you to use the phrase “I opt out” to do), or if your airport doesn’t have one, and you’d still like to get on the airplane today, then you will be subject to an “enhanced pat-down”. The same-sex agent will tell you that you’re going to be patted down. The TSA agent will pat down your back and front, including your breasts. They’re going to run their hands up the inside of your legs until they touch your genitals.
These pat-downs are not just a quick check for weapons. Legally, if someone else did these things to you outside of the airport security line, it would be sexual assault. And sometimes they neglect to tell you they’re about to do them.
You’re not trying to visit someone in a prison. You’re not trying to shake hands with the president. You’re trying to get on an airplane. And because you don’t want someone to look at you naked, they’re going to touch you in places you’ve been told all your life nobody gets to touch except your partner and, with your permission, your doctor. I can only imagine how much wore it would be if I were a victim of rape, sexual assault, or any of the other horrible crimes that other people have experienced.
Once you’ve decided to fly, you can’t opt out
The current backlash against TSA security started with this blog post by John Tyner. When Tyner was told that he was going to receive one of the enhanced pat-downs (because he turned down he backscatter scan), he told the TSA agent, “If you touch my junk, I’ll have you arrested”.
From there, a long and complicated dance from agent to agent ensued. Tyner refused the backscatter, and he refused the pat-down. He was escorted from the screening area, and then later told that if he didn’t return to the screening area he was facing a civil suit and a $10,000 fine, because the TSA had not determined that Tyner wasn’t carrying a bomb. The agent threatening the suit would not have Tyner arrested or detained.
They weren’t bluffing. The TSA is investigating Tyner and threatening to prosecute. with civil penalties up to $11,000.
So here are your choices:
- Choose not to fly. Nobody frisks you when you get in your car.
- Choose to fly, with the full knowledge that you’ll either go through a metal detector, an x-ray machine that will essentially show the screener naked pictures of you, or a pat-down that will frisk every part of your body.
Wait, is that legal? Don’t I have the right to privacy?
The fourth amendment to the US Constitution says:
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.
In general, that means that if law officers want to thoroughly search you, or most of your property, detain you, or seize your stuff, they have to have a warrant. The warrant has to be supported by probable cause and limited in scope to the specific information provided by the office in order for it to be issued. Officers are allowed to conduct a limited warrantless search if there’s specific unusual conduct that leads an officer to believe that criminal activity may be afoot. At that point they can do a pat-down search. But it can’t just be a hunch.
There are exceptions, including the border search exception, which says that Customs & Border Protection, ICE-HSI Special Agents, and Coast Guard officers who are all customs officers with the Department of Homeland Security are allowed to search travelers and their belongings without probable cause or a warrant. But even Customs officers are only allowed to search a traveler’s body (including strip, body cavity, involuntary x-ray, and in some jurisdictions pat-down searches), if they have reasonable suspicion there’s something going on.
In other words, if you want to enter the country, Customs has to have reasonable suspicion that you’re doing something wrong before they can put you through an enhanced pat-down or a backscatter machine.
The TSA, however, can just decide to pull you out of line for the metal detectors, while you’re flying from New York to California, because they chose a random number or even because feel like it, and force you to choose between an x-ray (backscatter machine) or an enhanced pat-down.
Last I checked “I’m in an airport!” isn’t unusual conduct that indicates criminal activity. It’s not probable cause. “We pulled a number out of a hat” is not probable cause. “We like your tight shirt” is not probable cause.
Is it legal? The TSA says it is. The ACLU, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and a number of other groups say they don’t think so. The courts haven’t decided, though they’re going to get their chance. Already an Arkansas man has filed a federal lawsuit against the TSA claiming that his fourth-amendment rights are being violated. I suspect there will be more suits before there are less.
OK but really, what are the chances that I’m going to get subjected to the extra screening?
Well, that depends. Do you look like a terrorist? No, no, wait, I take that back. That’s how the Washington Times thinks it should be decided, but it’s not how it actually works.
Actually, maybe the first question should be “Do you look like a woman?”
Suzy Guese writes about being a solo female traveler and airport security, and the strange coincidence that being a solo female traveler seems to significantly raise the chances that you’ll be pulled aside for enhanced security “features” of either the backscatter machine or the pat-down. Guese points out four things that, in her travels, seem to make women more likely to be put through the higher levels of security:
- You’re alone
- You’re attractive
- You look put together
- You look like you’re in a hurry
The TSA’s screening policies seem to indicate that tight-fitting clothes should help prevent the need for extra screenings, because baggy loose-fitting clothes are a threat. Guese references that wearing tight-fitting clothes seems to raise the chances that a woman will be pulled aside for extra screening.
So what to make of this? If I am traveling alone, which sometimes can’t be avoided, it pays to dress a little slovenly, eat that extra muffin, and act like you don’t care if you make your plane? It sounds like something out of the “she dressed like she was asking for it” school of thought.
(Oh wait, it seems dressing in loose-fitting clothes just means the TSA will put their hands down your pants instead. Well that’s a relief. Not.)
Even flying with someone doesn’t necessarily prevent unwelcome comments, like this captain who reports the story of a different captain’s daughter being called “a cutie” by TSA staff before an evasive pat-down.
But this is hearsay, just a few peoples’ view of what will get you pulled aside. Just being a woman isn’t probable cause, even if you are trying to get on an airplane.
What about being a woman and having asked the TSA on a prior trip to follow their own procedures toward medical equipment you’re carrying?
Here’s a video, about a young woman who’s traveling alone and requests that the TSA follow their own rules about breast milk – don’t x-ray it – but the TSA decides not to follow their own federal regulations.
Huh. Maybe Suzy Guese is on to something.
Or maybe the TSA, as a whole, is on a giant power trip.
Robert Graham wrote a post about being detained on 11/23 because he was taking pictures while going through security – a practice that is not only perfectly legal, it’s a part of the TSA Screening Manual.
TSA: Not all parts of the government are accountable to the public, especially the TSA.
Me: Wow. No, ALL parts of the government are accountable to the people, especially the TSA. I’m not sure what type of country you think we live in.
If it’s bad for adults, it’s only that much worse for children. First, you lose your teddy bear. Then they won’t stop touching you. And the TSA’s ideas behind how to handle children are downright scary. Their upper management came up with this suggestion: make a game out of it.
Hey, great idea, except that’s exactly how sexual predators go about their business as well. Ken Wooden, founder of Child Lures Prevention, is quoted in the article as saying:
“How can experts working at the TSA be so incredibly misinformed and misguided to suggest that full body pat downs for children be portrayed as a game?” Wooden asked in an email. “To do so is completely contrary to what we in the sexual abuse prevention field have been trying to accomplish for the past thirty years.”
The effectiveness of the loss of dignity
But it’s all OK – I hear – because it’s for safety. These things are making us safer, right?
Here’s one of those unsolveable problems. We don’t know how often the TSA succeeds at preventing illegal items from getting on planes. This is in part because the definition of “illegal items” is hotly contested (see previous soda vs knitting needles link) and in part because failures are so much easier to publicize. You don’t see every report of every arrest made for contraband.
You do see that, even before the new security policies, the 2000s have been the safest decade on record for avoiding violent passenger incidents. There have been fewer incidents per person-on-a-plane (enplanements? really? is that a word?) than we’ve ever experienced if we don’t count the people killed on the ground during 9/11. If we do count ground deaths, there have still been fewer incidents.
On the other hand, you’re likely to have already seen a number of articles on instances where the TSA’s policies and procedures failed.
For example, Adam Savage, of Mythbusters spoke about going through a backscatter while carrying 12″ razor blades and not getting caught.
Are we safer when we get a backscatter scan or an enhanced pat-down? We’ve already seen that the security measures in place before October 2010 must have been pretty effective – we’ve got the lowest number of fatalities per flyer that we’ve ever had. How much more safety do we need to buy out of our bank of personal freedoms to believe we are safe?
Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.
Is this the only way?
The TSA’s current process of plugging security holes is simple: every time there’s a breach of security somewhere else, the US airports get a new layer of security. If someone smuggles explosives onto a plane in the cargo bay using toner cartridges you can’t fly with toner cartridges. (That’s how we lost our liquids, and our shoes.) If someone finds a way to soak their clothes in explosives, we’ll all be required to have our shirts inspected. If — deity-of-your-choice forbid — someone decides to smuggle explosives onto a plane in their vagina, we’ll be getting cavity checks.
A number of articles have suggested a different route: the ‘Israelification’ of airports.
“First, it’s fast — there’s almost no line. That’s because they’re not looking for liquids, they’re not looking at your shoes. They’re not looking for everything they look for in North America. They just look at you,” said Sela. “Even today with the heightened security in North America, they will check your items to death. But they will never look at you, at how you behave. They will never look into your eyes … and that’s how you figure out the bad guys from the good guys.”
That’s the process — six layers, four hard, two soft. The goal at Ben-Gurion is to move fliers from the parking lot to the airport lounge in a maximum of 25 minutes.
According to this interview with Isaac Yeffet, former head of security for El Al, all Israeli security are educated, multi-lingual, thoroughly trained, and in touch with Israeli intelligence. If they screw up, they’re fired.
Every passenger is interviewed. Not inspected, interviewed. El Al have four hundred airports, and haven’t had an incident with their security using their techniques.
Yeffet believes their security techniques would scale to the US. Others believe they wouldn’t.. The question isn’t whether it would scale or not. We can’t possibly know until we try it. The question is why isn’t anyone trying it to find out?
Oh, by the way? The mainstream media is playing the whole thing off like a non-issue
Before the Thanksgiving holiday, when the real backlash led by Tyner started to hit the Internet airwaves, some groups started to plan protests to be held during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. K Gill, on IWillOptOut.org, ran down some of the media’s responses – not many of which were very supportive of the protests at all. The article becomes a lesson in the role of media in reporting – a role that Gill believes they’ve forgotten.
When the government says, “Jump!” it’s not the media’s role to ask “How high?” It’s the media’s role to ask “Why?”
During and after the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, mainstream media reports on the protests indicated that the protests must have failed, because there were no serious backups, there were no total breakdowns, and most people reached their destinations unscathed by the new TSA procedures.
The folks at IWillOptOut.org, in their article, What Just Happened? on 11/29 reported the opposite. They put forward that the protests were successful. The backscatter machines in many airports were not turned on. The pat-downs weren’t used at all. The TSA just flat-out abandoned using the new techniques, to get through the weekend.
Robert Graham also noted that the protests were effective.
This TSA Blog brags how the “Opt Out Day” was a failure, because wait times were actually lower than normal. But they are being disingenuous. Wait times are less because the TSA staffs up with a lot more people during Thanksgiving and Christmas high travel days. That’s been true the last several years, which likewise had shorter lines on November 23 as well. In addition, according people I know on Twitter flying today, the TSA simply stopped using the controversial AIT machines in order to prevent the protest from working. That means the protest was a success, not a failure. Lastly, protesters wouldn’t cause longer lines — traffic would simply be redirected through the metal detectors. The protesters would simply cause fewer people to be imaged/groped.
So now what do we do?
Bruce Schneier wrote a post on 12/2 predicting that the TSA won’t back down, even if we ask very nicely. They’ve spent too much on the scanners to claim that they’re not necessary, and if people opt out the alternative has to be just as intrusive or it couldn’t possibly be as effective.
Schneider’s article includes suggestions for where we probably need to move from and to in the name of security.
The truth is that exactly two things have made air travel safer since 9/11: reinforcing cockpit doors and convincing passengers they need to fight back. The TSA should continue to screen checked luggage. They should start screening airport workers. And then they should return airport security to pre-9/11 levels and let the rest of their budget be used for better purposes. Investigation and intelligence is how we’re going to prevent terrorism, on airplanes and elsewhere. It’s how we caught the liquid bombers. It’s how we found the Yemeni printer-cartridge bombs. And it’s our best chance at stopping the next serious plot.
Republican Representative John Mica of Florida is calling for airports to kick the TSA out and request private security guards instead. Federal law allows it, so long as all TSA-mandated security procedures are met. (That means rules about shoes, and hand pat-downs when necessary, would still exist.) Airports in Rochester, NY and Jackson Hole, Wyoming have already switched to private screeners. San Francisco International Airport has used private screeners since the formation of the TSA.
Lots and lots of people want you to complain if you feel your rights have been violated.
- Demand Progress has a form to help you petition your state legislators to ban and/or remove the scanners.
- You can also contact your Congressional representatives by following these steps.
- This blog post outlines more reasons why you should object, as well as why it’ll help, and what you should do. If you feel comfortable doing so, object. Opt out. Look the TSA agents in the eye when you do so, and call them by name. It may give the TSA agent the strength to stand up him/herself and object to what they’re being asked to do.
- Put the phone number for TSA Public Affairs at (571) 227-2829 in case you need it. Or if you think your rights have already been infringed, contact the TSA’s Office of Civil Rights and Liberties Complaints can also be sent in to the TSA directly here.
- The Electronic Frontier Foundation lists other ways to complain about the TSA’s invasive searches including an iPhone app and surveys. They’re also looking for example complaints you’re willing to share with them.
And what am I going to do?
You know, I’m not sure. I’ve done all this research and reading. Heck, this post doesn’t even hold all of it, and it’s over 5,000 words. (That’s 1/10th of the way to a NaNoWriMo win, for pete’s sake.)
If I didn’t hate airports to begin with, maybe I wouldn’t have read up on any of these experiences, and I wouldn’t know what I know now. If I knew nothing about the backscatter pictures, I’d just do what the TSA told me to do. But I know about them, and that knowledge makes me uncomfortable being in one. If I knew nothing about the enhanced pat-downs, I’d just opt-out of a backscatter. Well, once. After that, I’m guessing I wouldn’t want a second pat-down.
If I wasn’t facing travel to North Carolina for business, I’d just be like the good little American with her head in the sand and ignore the whole thing. After all, our vacations to Virginia Beach don’t require flying, and it’ll be a while before I can save up to fly to England again. But the drive from Philly to Charlotte is 9 hours minimum, based on Google’s guesses, and I’d be driving alone. Death by car accident is much more likely than death by terrorist incident, and always has been. And nobody’s going to backscatter me when I get in my car.
Will my job accept it if I say I won’t fly, but I will take the 13-hour train ride? I don’t know. I don’t want to use vacation days to travel for the company. But I don’t want to fly right now either. Especially not if I’m doing it once every three weeks until March, which is a distinct possibility.
I don’t want to limit where I can go and what I can do based on what I perceive to be a government agency taking unnecessary liberties with my fourth amendment rights. I already don’t fly unless I have to, and that’s a shame, because I loved Seattle when I was there in April, and I loved England when I was there in June. Still, the checks, re-checks, triple-checks, and layer upon layer of security measures designed to protect me from the attempts the terrorists already made, when those same terrorists are just off dreaming of new ways to incite terror, do nothing to either instill confidence in me that the TSA knows what they’re doing, nor make me eager to try to pass through security only to have the airlines themselves screw up my flights, break the planes, move me around terminals three times, or make me comfortable on the plane.
I don’t intend to fly. I never do. I also don’t intend to lose my job or use up all my vacation. The most I can say for my own situation right now is that I will be vigilant about my own rights and expect that you will do the same for yourselves. Perhaps together we can find a solution that allows us to be free and safe.