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Do Airport Screenings Really Make Us Safer?
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has been taking a beating lately over its new, full-body X-Ray imaging scanners that show people naked. People are concerned about both the humiliation of the procedure and the extra doses of X-rays they get from these scanners, but travelers who refuse to be scanned must submit to a TSA "enhanced pat-down," which now involves a newer, more aggressive policy: frisking with the front of the hand instead of the back of the hand, and feeling people's crotches and women's bras. These more invasive practices are leading the public from skepticism to rage and outright resistance to the new procedures, and for good reason, since TSA's track record of facilitating crime against travelers arguably far outstrips the amount of crime the agency has prevented.
A Pat Down Confrontation Goes Viral
A traveler at the San Diego airport recently made news after he used his cell phone to record an incident that involved the new airport security measures. The man had heard about the new X-Ray scanners and wanted to avoid them, so prior to leaving for his flight he checked the airport's Web site to see if the facility was using one of these devices. According to the site they were not, and he went to catch his flight.
But the traveler soon found the airport's Web site was out of date. As he stood in a security line awaiting his turn to go through a metal detector, a TSA agent pulled him out and ordered to submit to a backscatter/full-body X-Ray scanning machine -- the very type of machine he was trying to avoid. When the traveler refused the scan, TSA agents informed him that he would have to submit to a pat-down search that would include someone touching his groin. The traveler said he considered a stranger touching his groin to be a sexual assault, and pointed out that in any other venue such a touch would be illegal. He agreed to submit to the metal detector -- as about 80% of the other people in line were doing -- but told TSA agents he didn't want to be "groped." After refusing both the invasive pat-down search and the X-ray scan, TSA agents told him he would be prevented from flying. They escorted him back out to the ticketing area, where he got his airline ticket refunded. As the traveler was leaving the airport, a man in slacks and a sport coat approached him and told him that since he had initiated a screening in the secure area, he was not allowed to leave the airport until the screening was completed. The man informed the traveler that he was would get a $10,000 fine and a civil lawsuit -- even though TSA officers had escorted him out of the screening area.
The traveler recorded the entire incident on his cell phone, and uploaded it onto YouTube, where it has gone viral. The recording obviously hit a nerve with people who, like him, are fed up with the degradation of airport screenings.
Questionable TSA Activities
TSA's activities provide substantial fodder for both citizen and professional journalists. YouTube is full of citizen-made videos of TSA agents engaging in questionable activities, like aggressively patting down a three year old child or pulling the pants off a wheelchair-bound, 71 year-old man to examine his knee implant. A surveillance video shows a mother getting harassed by TSA over her baby's sippy cup. People report that their prosthetic limbs or body piercings routinely make them subject to degrading TSA searches whenever they travel. One woman says she was ordered to get out of a security line and undergo additional frisking because she was wearing a Dallas Cowboys jersey. After being subjected to a embarrassing public body search in a clear, Plexiglas enclosure, the TSA agent then asked her "How does it feel to be a Dallas Cowboys fan in Philadelphia?" The woman sought an apology from TSA. Another video shows a TSA Supervisor asleep at work.
TSA Has Made Passengers Less Safe
But problems with TSA get even worse than making air travel degrading. TSA has made passengers less safe by facilitating crimes against them. Recently a TSA supervisor was arrested at Liberty International Airport in Newark, New Jersey for allegedly stealing thousands of dollars in cash from passengers. The supervisor singled out non-English speaking people heading for foreign destinations as victims for secondary searches, during which he stole their money. Authorities estimate the supervisor pocketed between $400 and $700 in cash per shift.
Similarly, baggage handlers at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) were caught stealing computers, cameras, currency and jewelry from luggage. The organized ring of baggage thieves were assisted by TSA baggage screeners, who used the mandatory X-ray scans of peoples' baggage to locate valuables in their bags. The screeners sent text messages describing the bags and the locations of the valuables inside of them to handlers who later removed the items. Between January, 2001 and July, 2006 LAX passengers had over $306 million worth of property stolen -- and that's just the incidents that were reported. One LAX passenger witnessed a TSA agent stealing an IPod Nano out of his own bag during screening. He caught the agent on videotape, pressed charges and he got his item back, but others have not been so lucky. LAX had the most baggage of any U.S. airport, but it certainly wasn't the only airport where such thefts have occurred. New York's Kennedy Airport was second with about $26 million worth of property stolen, and Newark, New Jersey's Liberty Airport was third. Presumably such theft occurs at major airports around the country.
TSA also facilitates theft from travelers by other travelers by separating you from your valuables amid a crowd. Surveillance video has captured passengers stealing other peoples' valuables out of the little bowls TSA makes you put your wallet, keys, jewelery and spare change into to go through the x-ray machine. Travelers who aren't fast enough getting through the line, or who forget about those items for a second after going through the scanners or pat-down, can easily lose them to another passenger.
Authorities have also fired TSA agents who were found to be counterfeiting parking passes used at employee parking lots.
Passenger Revolt: National TSA Opt-Out Day
TSA's large-scale failures to protect passengers, the agency's intrusive searches and its facilitation of crime against passengers are bringing home to people the extent to which they have been forced to surrender their civil rights to fly on airlines, and how vulnerable they become at the hands of TSA. These realizations are leading to a growing public backlash. There is now call for a "National TSA Opt-Out Day" -- on Wednesday, November 24, 2010, one of the busiest travel days of the year -- in which passengers are urged to to stand up for their rights and "protest the government's desire to virtually strip us naked or submit to an 'enhanced pat down' that touches peoples' breasts and genitals in an aggressive manner." The idea for TSA Opt Out Day comes from a self-styled "anarchitect," John Wild, who encourages travelers to opt out of the naked body scanner machines and ask for the "enhanced" pat down -- and insist it be done in public so everyone can see the extent to which peoples' civil liberties are routinely being violated. Presumably, the delays caused by the massive number of pat-down requests will also make the system unworkable.
Pilots are revolting, too. In October, a Tennessee pilot refused both the X-Ray scan and pat-down search, saying he wanted to be able to go to work and not be "harassed or molested without cause." He described TSA as a "make work" program that doesn't make people safer. Soon after, the president of the Allied Pilots Association, which represents 11,000 American Airlines pilots, urged his members to refuse back-scatter screening, citing both the humiliation and the high doses of X-Rays pilots are already exposed to by working on airplanes. Another pilot group, the U.S. Airline Pilots Association, also joined the pilot revolt against the scanners, and against searches of pilots in general, making a total of about 14,000 pilots advocating against TSA's search procedures.
The Web site Gizmodo also joined the Internet war on TSA, too, after using the Freedom of Information Act to discover that body scans do get "leaked", despite repeated promises to the public by entities using the scanners that the scans are deleted and never saved.
What Else Can People Do?
Aside from avoiding airline travel entirely, "opting out" of naked-scanner searches and complaining to government representatives, travelers uncomfortable TSA searches can report negative experiences at the Web site of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a public interest research group based in Washington, D.C. that highlights emerging civil liberties and privacy issues. EPIC has filed a lawsuit to suspend the use of body scanners at U.S. airports, saying they are "unlawful, invasive and ineffective," and that they violate the Administrative Procedures Act, the Privacy Act, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Fourth Amendment.
Put It In Perspective
People also need to put the terrorism threat into realistic perspective. Globally, the average international death rate from road accidents is about 390 times that from international terrorism. In 2001, U.S. road crash deaths were equal to those from a September 11 attack every 26 days. More than 400,000 Americans are killed each year by smoking cigarettes -- hundreds of thousands more than terrorism causes, but millions more dollars are being pumped into trying to stop terrorism than into addressing these other well-known factors that kill hundreds of thousands more Americans with greater regularity. Policymakers should pay attention to such comparisons when allocating resources to public safety, and the public needs to take a deep breath and face the reality of such comparisons. Terrorism is a small threat compared to the massive amount of resources being thrown at the perceived problem.
Additionally, out the most notorious post-911 attempted airplane bombings in recent years -- the "Shoe Bomber," the Christmas Day "Underpants Bomber" and more the recent mailed cargo packages -- none were intercepted by TSA. They were all stopped by other means, including alert airline passengers.
The government is in an irrational panic mode when it comes to airline travel. Millions of innocent travelers are now effectively considered guilty until proven innocent. TSA's invasive screening procedures are bringing home to people to just how much freedom they have been forced to give up in response to the actions of a few terrorists.
There must be better ways to handle the problem, and more effective ways to allocate resources to keep American safe. It's time the government started taking a hard look at what those might be.