On becoming an ‘opt-out’

The TSA’s scanning policies have raised questions on the boundaries of personal privacy.

tsa body scanners
TSA’s body scanners allow security personnel to view people naked ‘for security reasons’ [GALLO/GETTY]

Tehran, Iran – I had been debating with myself, and a few friends, about whether or not to accept an invitation to attend a film conference in Iran. The argument against going is that by travelling there, you validate a dictatorial police state.

But with so few American journalists going to Tehran these days, I felt a higher duty to attend.

The first step in the long trip from New York was getting in line for an inspection by that uniformed Army called the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA), a $5bn agency that insists it is only there to keep us safe.

Talk about a police state.

There is no question that one consequence of its rigorous procedures is to teach the public how to be compliant and follow orders. It’s a manifestation of a certain “friendly fascism” ushered in by 9/11, what the Right denounces in other areas as a nanny state.

Never mind that on that day of infamy in 2001, Boston’s airport was run by an Israeli expert known for the highest security standards, or that security detectors at Newark found knives on hijackers, but they gave them back because they were legal at the time.

George W Bush’s decision to establish the TSA was about visibly reassuring the public to keep them flying. It was also a way to create lots of jobs without his own party objecting. It was justified as “at least we are doing something!”

This Big Government hiring programme was driven by fear – but rarely criticised.

Inside Story: US travellers rebel against scanner

Back in the line at JFK airport, I noticed that in this class society of ours, the TSA permits shorter lines for First Class and Business Class passengers, ensuring that the 99 per cent/1 per cent divide is alive and well in our airports.

A very sweet black woman helped me schlep my plastic containers overflowing with a bulky winter coat, a sweatshirt with a zipper, belt, coins, pens, sneakers, iPad and computer.

I surprised the officer by telling her that in England they don’t take computers out of bags anymore, and that Germany doesn’t require belts and shoes to be taken off.

Her response: “I hope someday soon that we can end all this. It is a big drag for everyone.”

Amen, sister.

I am sure she wouldn’t want to be quoted by name because, as I soon found out, the TSA does not like people who are “negative”.

Yet there have been many “negative” incidents – like old women being strip-searched, TSA agents asleep on the job and even reports of luggage being stolen.

Humiliation or retaliation?

While all my stuff was going through one machine, I was steered to another, one of those supposedly safe body scanners where I was supposed to stand, hands up, as if I were being busted or guilty of something.

I decided then and there to seek an alternative. In TSA parlance, I became an “opt-out” and now had to go through a “standard male pat”. The problem was that there was no one there to do it, so I ended up standing around for 10-15 minutes, no doubt as an example to those who don’t follow orders.

Sure, it was a bit humiliating.  

Finally, they found a young man who donned a pair of blue gloves to run his hands all over my legs and posterior, and check my underwear. I was ordered to raise my hands, the very procedure I objected to earlier. When I questioned all of this, he called for a superior because I was being “negative”.

He was like the automaton that I was expected to become.

I had been reading articles by the investigators at ProPublica about the safety of these new machines that I opted out of:

  • “The head of the Transportation Security Administration has backed off a public commitment to conduct a new independent study of X-ray body scanners used at airport security lanes around the country.”
  • “One type of scanner uses X-rays, and ProPublica and PBS NewsHour revealed questions about whether it might increase cancer cases.”
  • “While the Transportation Security Administration says that airport body scanners are highly effective at detecting explosives hidden underneath clothing, some studies and a congressman briefed on classified research suggest the machines could miss carefully concealed plastic explosives.”

Hmm …

After reports of several cases of “anatomical ridicule” by TSA workers reported by CNN, a website named Helium reports:

“The Electronic Privacy Information Centre (EPIC) has filed suit under the Freedom of Information Act to obtain from the Department of Homeland Security details regarding the use of advanced imaging technology, which includes the full body scanners.

Also, the TSA has stated that the plan for using the devices with the general public is to have the worker viewing the scans isolated in a room, separate from the traveller lines and imaging devices, so that anyone in contact with the person being imaged cannot see the image. The images are also not going to be saved, though suspected individuals may have their images stored eventually, which could lead to abuse. And some people still cringe at the thought of someone in a room giggling at them.”

I am not the only opt-out to write about all of this. Stephen Checkoway responded to a post on the Lawfare Blog calling on the TSA to be more like the Israelis and interview people they think are suspicious:

“The primary criticism is that the TSA has overstepped its authority - or if it has not, then it has too much authority - in implementing invasive new security procedures. The new full body scanners are of dubious utility and there are unresolved medical questions…

The problem is that the government has decided that having naked-ish pictures taken or being groped in a manner that when performed by any other stranger would be sexual assault can be made a precondition of flying. What’s worse is the standard pat-down is quite clearly retaliatory with TSA agents reportedly calling out things like “We’ve got an opt-out!”

By the time I landed in Iran, I had put most of the TSA indignity behind me, only to find myself waiting for their security checkers. As it turned out, all they wanted were electronic fingerprints – at least from me and the two other Americans with me.

It turns out that after the US border agents started taking fingerprints of foreign visitors at US airports, other countries followed suit on travellers from the “land of the free”.

That only took an hour. By then it was 2 AM, and I was wondering why I hadn’t opted out of this whole travel ordeal in the first place.

Danny Schechter writes the NewsDissector.com blog. His latest book is Occupy: Dissecting Occupy Wall Street. His latest film is Plunder: The crime of our time. Comments to dissector@Mediachannel.org