To be scanned or not to be scanned, that is the question
on November 24, 2010
“You want to opt-out?” the TSA officer asked incredulously. I was standing in a newly implemented Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) machine at the Oakland airport. Passengers are randomly selected as they pass through security to enter the AIT machine, which looks like an oversized metal detector and projects an image of a person’s unclothed body on a screen for TSA officials to review. Those selected have the choice to opt-out of the full-body scan, but must then submit to a thorough pat-down, a procedure that some have called a violation of privacy.
I told the officer I wanted to opt-out. He warned that the pat-down is more invasive than the scan, and I nodded. I was directed through a normal metal detector and told to wait for a male officer to administer the check.
Security has ramped up in recent weeks in anticipation of the holiday travel season. An October 29 release from the Department of Homeland Security warned passengers that several enhanced security measures had been put into effect, including explosive trace detection, AIT scans, canine teams, and a new pat-down procedure. The updated pat-down includes a firm pat of passengers’ chests and genital regions, physical contact that has infuriated some travelers. A November 21 press release from TSA Administrator John Pistole said the agency was considering complaints about the protocol, but said that the current methods would remain in place at present to ensure passengers’ security.
“We cannot forget that less than one year ago a suicide bomber with explosives in his underwear tried to bring down a plane over Detroit,” the release read, referring to the Christmas Day bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. “We all wish we lived in a world where security procedures at airports weren’t necessary but that just isn’t the case.”
Frustrated travelers have begun an online movement to make Wednesday “National Opt-Out Day,” encouraging passengers to refuse the AIT scan in favor of more time-consuming pat-downs. The aim of the movement is to overburden airport security— compounding the predictably frantic atmosphere of an airport the day before Thanksgiving—in protest of the TSA’s invasive checks. It is uncertain how much momentum the movement has. Pistole, fielding reporters’ questions during a national conference call Tuesday afternoon, warned of delays if protesters take action. “If large numbers of people opt-out, it will have a negative impact on people making their flights on time,” he said.
There was no trace of heavy holiday traffic at Oakland airport early Tuesday. Lines remained short throughout the day and TSA officers processed passengers quickly, walking some through the traditional metal detector while instructing others through an AIT scan. I was randomly chosen to undergo the more thorough procedure and, as many threaten to do this holiday season, I opted-out of the scan.
The male TSA officer arrived at the security checkpoint with blue gloves on. He asked me to stand with my legs apart, my arms extended and my palms up. He checked down my arms, across my shoulders and chest. He used the back of his hands to check along the back of my upper thigh. He felt between the inside of my pants and my hips around the circumference of my waistband. He paused to demonstrate in the air with his hands how he was going to feel the front of the thigh, the most controversial part of the procedure. He placed his hands on the inside of my right leg and moved up to my groin, repeating the motion on the left side. Afterward, he went to a nearby station to scan the gloves for any explosive residue on my person. When the scan came back negative, he gestured to my belongings, indicating that the search was complete and I could continue on. The pat-down took about two minutes to administer.
Though my particular pat-down was not unpleasant, stories of other pat-downs have been highlighted throughout the media. Thomas Sawyer, a bladder cancer survivor, said a pat-down broke his urostomy bag, spilling urine on his clothing. Another cancer survivor, Cathy Bossi, said she was made to show her prosthetic breasts to a female officer as part of a pat-down.
But Pistole said those stories are not the norm. Less invasive procedures will be considered, Pistole said, but the current measures have been largely successful. “Since we enhanced pat-down procedures, we’ve scanned 35 million people and we’ve received about 2000 complaints about the [AIT] or the pat-downs,” he said. “And some of those are complaints that just said, ‘I didn’t like that,’ as opposed to, ‘I was groped.’”
Joyce Stafford, a Hayward resident who had just exited security after receiving a pat-down, said she was glad the precautions were being taken. “I’m happy,” she said. “I’d rather everybody be thoroughly searched to be safe.”
When asked what she would tell those who found the pat-downs to be unduly invasive, she said they should find another mode of transportation. “I’d say ‘Take the bus, take the train, drive or walk,’” she said. “I’d rather be safe than sorry.”
Others at the airport Tuesday said they felt the procedures went too far. Tom Choquette, an Alaska resident, said the pat-down was invasive and unnecessary. “When they grab your balls from the front and the back? … What the fuck are they going to find there?” Choquette said.
Oakland airport security director Fred Lau said TSA officials are receptive to complaints, and try to make the security protocols as pleasant as possible. “We try to address any concerns right then and there,” Lau said. “We use them to brief team members as they report for duty.”
Despite impressions from media coverage, Lau said, his team treats passengers professionally and with courtesy. “We recruit the people we want to work for us,” Lau said. “They come from this area. They treat you as a best friend or neighbor. Treating people that way, it’s not a job, it’s an obligation.”
Wanda Harmon, a San Leandro resident, said she was called for a pat-down after her cell phone triggered the metal detector. She said she was uncomfortable with the procedure. “I had seen it on TV, but to feel someone’s hands go over your breasts and inner thighs—it was awkward and invasive,” Harmon said.
Harmon said that she sympathized with the female officer who searched her, and who told her that she too was uncomfortable following her organization’s pat-down protocol. Harmon added that, though she disliked the method, she agreed with its principle. “My privacy as a person, I’d give it up for national security,” Harmon said. “I guess I’m just disappointed that it’s the best we can do.”
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