Hey, remember a few weeks ago, when we were safe enough on airplanes after everyone just had to go through a metal detector? Remember when the government didn’t require that we surrender our Fourth Amendment rights in order to get on board?
We at GeekDad don’t usually speak up on this sort of topic, but the TSA’s new security measures have prompted such universal outrage we suspect we won’t lose a lot of readers by joining the throng. We think it’s important to address how the new procedures affect families with children, particularly because many families will be traveling for Thanksgiving next week.
By now you’ve heard about the full-body scanner that creates an image of passengers’ naked bodies through their clothes. The TSA argues that this is not a violation of privacy because the agents who view the scans can’t see the passengers in real life, and so can’t associate one with the other, and because they can’t save copies of the scans. They continue to make these claims despite the many hundreds of scans that have made their way online, some of them paired up with regular photographs of the people in them (which we will not link to so as to avoid perpetuating the violation of their privacy). And you’ve doubtless heard about the alternative measure, should you opt out of the scan: a full-body pat-down by an agent that gets, shall we say, very personal.
It seems fairly clear that these measures violate the right of U.S. citizens, guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment, to protection from unreasonable searches. In fact, a former high-ranking TSA official named Mo McGowan — while attempting to defend the measures — admitted on Fox News that they do in fact violate Fourth Amendment rights. They compound the issue, should you attempt to refuse both the scan and the pat-down, by preventing you from leaving the security area and arresting you if you continue to refuse. Their logic for this is that anyone who would refuse to be checked at the time it’s about to happen is automatically even more suspect — yet another case where the government operates under the fallacy that privacy is only desired by those with something nefarious to hide. It should be noted that Israel, a country that has been dealing with terrorist threats on airplanes for longer than the U.S., and certainly is more likely to encounter one on any given day, doesn’t use full-body scans or pat-downs — they evaluate the people, not the stuff people are carrying. They scan bags and use metal detectors, of course, but mostly they use “soft” techniques, and they are extremely effective and quick.
Now, how do the new procedures affect families with children? There have been several stories of children undergoing traumatic pat-downs, either because their parents opted out of the scans or because the scan requires you to stand still for ten seconds, which many kids aren’t able to do (particularly in a stressful situation). The good news is that the TSA has modified their procedures for handling pat-downs of kids; the bad news is that they won’t reveal how they’ve modified them, because to do so would of course tip off the terrorists — never mind the fact that there’s nothing preventing people witnessing the pat-downs from talking to the press or blogging about them.
So what should you do? We recommend refusing the scan — not just because it’s invasive but because its potential health risks have not been adequately studied. The back-scatter technique bombards the human body with x-rays — and yes, they’re low intensity x-rays — but it’s not clear how much of the radiation is absorbed by the skin or what long-term effects might be. The fact that the pilots’ union urges its members to refuse the scans should send up a red flag to everyone.
The pat-downs of children under age twelve are supposed to be of the “standard” (i.e., less personal) variety, but that’s scant comfort for most parents. We strongly urge you to discuss with your kids what’s going to happen, before even leaving for the airport. Explain that a man or woman in a uniform will quickly use his or her hands to touch their bodies through their clothes, and that if they can be brave and stand still while it happens that will make it be over sooner. Explain, if your kids are old enough to understand, that this isn’t something you as parent(s) want to have happen, but that the government says it has to happen or you won’t be able to get on the airplane. You do have the right to ask the TSA agent to put on fresh gloves before patting you or your child down, and you should not feel bad about asking. If you have a child with special needs, and particularly one with sensory issues, it’s not totally clear what options you have — the TSA’s webpage on the subject doesn’t seem to have been updated to address what to do in light of the new procedures.
We also urge you to discuss the matter with those around you while you wait in the long lines at security. Try to convince everyone you can to also opt out of the scan. If enough people in the line opt out, it’s quite possible (there have been several reports online of this occurring) the agents will simply send everyone through the metal detectors in lieu of the pat-downs, because doing that many pat-downs would slow the line considerably. Even if your rights are being violated anyway, you should still go ahead and exercise those rights you still have.
NOTE: The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of every GeekDad contributor.