If you’ve flown within the past month or two, you probably encountered the Travel Security Agency’s full-body scanners, which allow TSA employees—who may or may not have been given a background check and proper training—to view virtual images of passengers without their clothes on. Some have described these scanners as “a virtual strip search.”
Passengers who opt out of being seen naked by a total stranger are required to get an “enhanced pat-down,” which involves an agent intimately probing private areas of their bodies.
In some instances, passengers are subject to both a full-body scan and a pat-down. The only way for passengers to avoid both processes is not to fly.
The scanners are already being used in over 70 airports across America, and are scheduled to eventually replace all metal detectors. The way they work is, passengers step through the scanner and are bombarded with millimeter-wave radiation—equivalent to the radiation one receives when getting an x-ray, which generates the nude image. Health experts have warned that exposure to this radiation can cause cancer, as well as other unidentified health issues, especially for frequent fliers.
A TSA agent in a separate room views the image and decides if the person is free to board. If the passenger has been cleared, the nude image is supposed to be deleted. However, US Marshals in Florida have admitted to storing 35,000 nude photos from the scanners, and over 100 such images have made their way onto the Internet.
If a passenger has so much as a pen on their person when they go through the scan, they will be subject to the invasive pat-down—which are also given at random, according to the TSA. That means that the pat-downs are as likely to be administered to a 7-year-old girl or a 70-year old grandmother as they are to Osama bin Laden.
And passengers aren’t the only ones subject to the new scans and pat-downs. Pilots and flight attendants are also required to pass through the security checkpoints. One pilots’ union has urged their members not to pass through the full-body scanners for health reasons.
Many fliers have been outraged at the new security measures, which they consider to be in violation of their privacy and rights. One lawyer, John Whitehead, is suing the federal government to stop the scanning. He argues that the full-body scanning and pat-downs violate the fourth amendment to the Constitution, which protects citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures.
Many travelers—especially those traveling for the holidays—were not aware that the new measures were in place. Some have described the pat-downs as humiliating; others have likened the experience to a sexual assault.
Another traveler, a rape survivor, said the thought of the scan made her feel dirty and vulnerable. When she told officials that she didn’t want to experience the naked scanner, a male agent gave her a pat-down, despite the TSA’s claims that pat-downs would only be administered by same-sex agents. Celeste described the pat-down: “He started at one leg and then ran his hand up to my crotch. He cupped and patted my crotch with his palm. Other flyers were watching this happen to me. At that point I closed my eyes and started praying for strength. He also cupped and then squeezed my breasts. That wasn’t the worst part. He touched my face, he touched my hair, stroking me. That’s when I started crying. It was so intimate, so horrible. I feel like I was being raped. There’s no way I can fly again. I can’t do it.”
Despite public outcry, the TSA claims that the new security measures are necessary to maintain public safety.
The more invasive security measures, the government agency says, come as a response to the attempted terrorist attack by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian man who boarded a US-bound plane with explosives hidden in his underwear and then tried to blow up the plane in midair as it approached Detroit. The so-called underwear bomber’s plot was foiled not by government agents, but by passengers aboard the airplane who caught him in the act.
But what have the new security measures accomplished? According to TSA spokesperson Greg Soule, “This year alone, the use of advanced imaging technology has led to the detection of over 130 prohibited, illegal or dangerous items.”
The TSA has declined to detail what those items were, although they did note that some were drugs and plastic knives. So after a year of scanning—after countless thousands of passengers have been harassed, scanned and prodded—only 130 passengers have been caught with contraband items. And those items confiscated have not been the types of weapons that terrorists might use.
International security experts have said that the TSA screenings are not effective. British security expert Ian Hutcheson says that the problem with the TSA’s technique is that their approach is so uniform. Each airport has the same security measures, which makes it easier for terrorists to plan an attack.
“There has to be an element of surprise. Most attacks on aviation are well reconnaissanced and well planned. If you have a consistent security system around the globe it is quite easy to reconnoiter that and predict it,” Hutchenson said.
Many experts have indicated that America would benefit greatly from adopting Israel’s techniques for airport security, which involves each passenger being subjected to a background test and an interview by well-trained, former-military security experts. Because the process uses profiling, some passengers take more time to pass through security than others. But the use of profiling also allows officials to focus their attention on travelers more likely to cause trouble.
Whatever the case, travelers have made it clear that they feel current airport security measures need to change.
Casey Cosker is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to IMAGE Magazine. He lives in Brooklyn.