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Passenger Anger Over Full-Body Scanners, Pat-Downs Erupts

I flew through Pittsburgh, PA back in October, and had my first encounter with the full-body scanner. Outside of grumbling that it took quite a long time to get through the system and that TSA didn’t seem to have a good grasp of how to use the machines without getting a lot of false positives, I didn’t think much of it. But plenty of passengers have become alarmed by the intrusive, privacy-invading machines, and the even more intrusive pat-downs that ensue if you try to opt out of the scanner. And it’s not just the fact that full-body scanner photos are basically soft-core porn that can be traded, it’s the low-level radiation that the machine exposes the passenger to, leading to many pilots and flight attendants to opt out because of fears of cancer. And the pat-downs have created a serious problem.

That’s not how John Tyner sees it.

The software engineer posted an Internet blog item over the weekend saying he had been ejected from the San Diego airport after being threatened with a fine and lawsuit for refusing a groin check after turning down a full-body scan. He said he told one federal TSA worker, “If you touch my junk, I’m gonna have you arrested.”

“I told the person that being molested should not be a condition of getting on a flight,” the 31-year-old said in a phone interview Monday.

Tyner, who was eventually told he could not fly at all because he refused both modes of search, captured the incident on his cell phone.

“This is not considered a sexual assault,” a supervisor can be heard telling him.

“It would be if you were not the government,” replies Tyner.

This has not just been a complaint of Tyner, who’s become something of a folk hero. Women have filed sexual assault charges against TSA personnel, and this video of a three year-old freaking out from a pat-down has gained wide notoriety.

We don’t have a security system at the airport, we have security theater. We add in measures based on outdated threats. We don’t have highly-trained security personnel looking for a potential threat based on psychological profiles. Instead, we have these big dumb scanners that threaten everyone’s right to privacy and invasive pat-downs done by personnel who clearly don’t know what they’re doing.

TSA claims that the scanners have wide support in public opinion polls, but Nate Silver punctures that a bit. The scanners aren’t in full effect across the country yet, and anyway people don’t really fly a lot. So you could be collecting a substantial amount of opinion from people with no experience with the scanners.

One organization is calling for an Opt Out Day on next Wednesday, November 24, the busiest air travel day of the year. They’re asking everyone to opt out of the scanners and ask for a pat-down, which would essentially bring the entire aviation system to a halt if done on a mass scale, especially on the day before Thanksgiving. There are perhaps more serious problems with the pat-down, so I don’t see this as a good piece of activism. I do agree there’s a problem, however. And having the TSA Administrator say they’re looking for a balance between security and privacy is not good enough. People shouldn’t be humiliated and forced into a situation of control when they want to board a plane.

By the way, it’s unclear whether the scanners even solve the problem of an underwear bomber or some other determined terrorist.

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David Dayen

David Dayen