The people said "No more!" and the TSA said "Shut your pie holes!"

14 November 2010

First, I'd like to give special thanks to I/Oerror who's been keeping a hawk's eye on this. I found a couple of the articles for this post on his Twitter feed during my daily news crawl. I wish I had the time to dedicate to scanning feeds constantly for stuff like this.

I haven't been posting about this for two reasons: first, because hearing that stuff like this is going on within the United States of America to decent people who haven't done anything upsets me greatly. There is simply no reason to mistreat people like this, all it does is create an atmosphere of fear where and mistrust. Second, I'm concerned about possible retribution the next time I have to fly because it would not surprise me if the shitstorm the TSA's "enhanced searching" procedures has kicked up has a few members of their blogging team (yes, they have pet bloggers spreading fnords (anon.)) monitoring online discourse and looking for the nails sticking up the most, the better to hammer them down the next time they try to fly anywhere because word gets around fast. At this point I trust them about as far as I can throw a Buick without powered armor.

If you haven't been keeping up with current events, not too long ago the US Transportation Security Agency (anon.) set in motion a plan in which full body scanners would be deployed in select airports around the country. The idea behind them is that security teams could tell if someone had something concealed beneath their clothing, and as a side effect shows the traveler naked for all intents and purposes, and what's more they archive the images for an undisclosed period of time. For a while various groups and a few US senators were pushing back against this plan but they've started deploying the scanners anyway. There are still health concerns about the x-ray backscatter scanners that are yet unresolved. The Food and Drug Administration is trying its best to reassure people.

There is also the little matter of both types of full body scanners not being able to detect the objects they were put in place to catch, namely, bomb components. In fact, a couple of experts have come right out and said that they're a waste of money that could be better spent elsewhere. Hell, even Max Headroom's evil sister Ann Coulter has spoken out against them. Taking all of these things into consideration it's little wonder that people were opting to be searched by hand in the fashion that my wife was a couple of weeks ago at BWI when she kept setting the metal detector off. Sure it took a little longer and was marginally less humiliating than a random stranger at the airport looking at you naked but it satisfied the security regs, right?
It seems that, due to the fact that travelers are speaking up and refusing to be imaged by devices of questionable accuracy, utility, safety, and ethics the TSA has decided to push back by humiliating people who dare to refuse. The first person to report what happened was a pilot who works for ExpressJet Airlines who found out the hard way. Sometimes refusal to go through a scanner gets written up as an "incident" to go on a permanant record of some kind (what is this, middle school?) Chances are it means being detained for a while, usually until a security detail shows up to inqure why someone had the temerity to say anything. Your limbs will be squeezed to check for anything that might be fastened to them, as will your torso (I wonder what they'd make of an insulin pump?) and neck. Your buttcrack will be spread to see if you've got anything hidden in there. Your legs will be checked in like fashion and your genitals will be fondled to see if you have anything hidden on or near them.

At least you have the option of having it done in a back room; personally, I'd prefer having it done in front of everyone to show the crowd exactly what things have come to. Plus, it might be good to have a few dozen witnesses in case the TSA tries to play a harmless joke on you. However, if you refuse you might roll a botch and wind up in handcuffs without a ticket and get thrown out by a flying wedge of real police officers.

The answer seems cut and dried, doesn't it? Just shut up, swallow your civil rights, and go through the scanner, right? Unless the powers that be decide that the all-but-naked scan wasn't good enough and you have to go under the gloves anyway. Or you might be randomly selected to get felt up. It needs to be said that not everyone is going to take kindly to this, such as survivors of rape and possibly survivors of physical abuse. A number of professional associations for pilots are protesting the measures in a half-hearted fashion, flight attendents are getting upset, and unions are beginning to cry foul. The ACLU is collecting stories from travelers who have undergone this humiliating treatment for no good reason. Or maybe sometimes there is a reason.

Funnily enough, the TSA tried to do this back in 2004 but it got shot down after controversy broke out. It's also strange that pilots and flight attendents have to go through the same screening process, just in case they're carrying any weapons or explosives. I hate to break it to the TSA but if there was a rogue airline pilot looking to wreak havoc, they wouldn't need explosives or a weapon, they could pilot the plane itself into something spottable from the air and the laws of physics (as well as a couple of tanks full of airline fuel) would do the work.

In case you're curious, here's the TSA's lame attempt at spin control (anon.) on their official blog. Reassuring, no?

So, what can we do?

24 November 2010 (the day before Thanksgiving) has been declared by some Opt-Out Day (note: NSFW header picture, relevant to subject matter), in which everyone who is selected to go through the pornscanners must opt out and get up close and personal with TSA manual screeners in front of as many fellow travelers as possible. The reasons for this are simple: not only to show people what it means to be a law abiding citizen of the United States of America in the twenty-first century, but to have the manual screeners touch the junk of so many people that complaints get sent up the food chain and hopefully get this policy reconsidered. Plus it would bog down the screening process so far that complaints would flood the TSA. Journalist Jeffrey Goldberg suggests that as many males as possible wear kilts to mess with the screener's heads. However, this makes about as much sense as PETA using the so-called enhanced pat-downs to advocate for veganism.

The going sentiment today with respect to the pornscanners and enhanced pat-downs seems to be "Don't fly if you can help it." This is what I have chosen. As I've stated earlier, I'm quite upset that outright coercion and retribution are being used to get people to go through the full body scanners, and I'm not about to subject myself to being imaged practically naked without getting paid for my time, nor getting groped without at least getting a date out of it. As fashionable as it is today to decline to make one's voice heard in the halls of government (because it hasn't done a whole lot lately) e-mail your Senators and Congressional representatives and complain. Don't write in a histrionic manner, that won't get you anywhere. Be polite, respectful, and tactful. Be intelligent. Get someone else to read your letter and sanity check you. You'll get a lot farther if you sound like all the registers in your CPU are functional than you will if you come across like a half-deranged Art Bell impersonator. If you must, mention that your vote for them is contingent upon their acting according to the will of their constituents on this matter; throwing in that you won't contribute to their next campaign probably wouldn't hurt. If you're feeling ambitious, hunt down, print out, and include some of the more intelligent, well researched, and thoughtful articles on why this is a bad idea and the negative side effects the new policies have on security. Providing a bit of evidence couldn't hurt. Try writing to the President while you're at it. The above guidelines apply. Don't make threats, don't make promises, turn on the charisma and try to get whomever you write to to look at things from another point of view. Urge them to work to reverse these changes in TSA procedure.

Nothing will change for the better if we don't work together. Let's get to it.