You can just say ‘no’ to TSA’s electronic strip-search

By John M. Simpson

If you fly you’ve probably encountered the Transportation Security Administration’s highly intrusive and probably ineffective backscatter body scanners. Some security experts describe the technology that produces detailed, three-dimensional images of you as the equivalent of “a physically invasive strip-search.”

Privacy considerations aside, there is the strong possibility that the backscatter x-ray machines may subject us to unnecessary radiation.  That might be particularly threatening to frequent air travelers, flight crews, and individuals with greater sensitivity to radiation, such as children, pregnant women, the elderly, and cancer patients.

Our friends at EPIC are really on top of this issue having filed suit to block further deployment of the machines and are tracking the latest developments. But, what can you to do?

Just say, “no!”  

TSA Search

The TSA doesn’t advertise the fact prominently, but you can opt of the invasive electronic strip-search.  That’s what I always do. If everybody did, the TSA would stop deploying the gadgets and go back to simply using metal detectors all the time.

I’m writing this post at 36,000 feet, flying back to Los Angeles from Washington, DC where I was representing Consumer Watchdog at the Trans Atlantic Consumer Dialog. (More about TACD in another post).

I’ve just been through the TSA’s checkpoint at Dulles International airport.  The backscatter machine was being used. A metal detector with a TSA employee blocking it was right beside the backscatter machine. I dutifully removed everything from pockets, took off my shoes (no holes in socks) and belt (pants didn’t fall down). I put my laptop in a separate bin and made my way toward the machines.
Everyone ahead of me that I observed went through the backscatter machine.  Then a woman two people ahead of me took a little longer for whatever reason than the norm.

The woman directly in front of me was sent through the metal detector.  I stepped up for my turn, hoping to keep things simple and also be sent through the metal detector. It was not to be.  I was motioned toward the electronic strip-search.

Now I’m not particularly squeamish about nakedness. When I was a college kid I used to go skinny dipping all the time.  But the thing is, I did it when I decided to do it.  I didn’t strip when the government told me to do it and I don’t intend to do so now.

So, I pointed at the backscatter machine and politely said to the TSA lady, “I’m sorry, but I don’t do that.  I’ll need a male assist.”

I’ve been through this a lot of times and know the drill.

A male TSA agent came over and escorted me past the baggage scanner and had me point to my luggage. He asked me not to touch it and carried it to the area where they perform pat-downs.  He professionally and courteously explained what he was going to do, that he would use the back of his hands when he touched “sensitive areas.” He was wearing blue latex gloves. He then asked if I wanted the screening in a private area.

I told him no, as I always do, because the more people see that the pat-down alternative to an electronic strip-search is no big deal, then the more of us will eschew the  strip search.

The whole thing slowed my clearance by about five minutes which is trivial.  Next time I might have a little fun and ask if I can have a female assist.

Just kidding.  The important thing is you can just say “no” to the electronic strip-search and you should.