Last Wednesday, after a fabulous trip to DC, I flew back to San Francisco through Dulles International Airport and had the opportunity to opt out of a whole-body imaging scan (aka backscatter x-ray, strip-search machine, nude-o-scope). I use “opportunity” here on purpose: shortly before I left for my trip, I did a bunch of research on the then brand-new enhanced screenings and was thoroughly prepared. Knowing, from self-defense classes, how adrenaline or social pressure can short out one’s plans or convictions, I had even practiced saying that I wanted to opt out so that I wouldn’t find myself nervous and hustled into the scanner.
There are now dozens of excellent articles and blogs available on the subject of the scanners and why you might not want to go through them (I’ve added links to a handful of my favorites at the bottom). I’m going to stick to the personal here: here’s exactly what happened to me, in case you were wondering what might happen to you. Unlike many of the stories going around, mine is pretty calm. I don’t feel sexually violated, none of the TSA workers behaved egregiously (though one was incredibly rude), and I was polite and moderate the entire way through because not getting on my plane wasn’t an option, much as I would have loved to spend more time in DC. I’d wager that my experience was average for a woman choosing the pat-down, and I’m putting this up to encourage others (without scaring them) to opt out, and not just on November 24th.
I’d been ready the week before at SFO, but none of the scanners were on. At IAD, however, the agents were feeding a constant stream of passengers through them—the only people going through the magnetic scanner only were those who were cleared to go while someone else was being screened in the backscatter machine. The agent at the head of my line regularly repeated to us that “everything must be out of your pockets and in a bin; nothing can be in your pockets.” I placed my carry-on luggage, separated quart bag of liquids, shoes, wallet, watch, and phone in the bins. I kept my boarding pass, which I didn’t even think of until later.
It looked like I was going to skip the scanner, but the man in front of me had to deal with a trial-sized toothpaste in his carry-on. The agent waved me forward and I said, “I’m opting for the pat-down.”
He looked me up and down, socks to eyes, and asked why. “Because I have the right to.” There was a mighty pause after this.
He said, “you don’t have any jewelry on at all. This could take a while.” I’m not clear why he noted the lack of jewelry. He pointed me to a mat behind a plastic gate on the other side of the two-line security area and told me to wait. He called to another agent, over on the same side as me, that they would need a female for a pat-down. The other agent repeated this, loudly, into a walkie-talkie.
And there I stood, in my socks, for at least ten but not more than fifteen minutes. I can’t say exactly how long it was because my watch, along with my wallet (sitting out uncovered) and shoes and carry-on with medication, was a good twenty feet away, out of my sight and away from the agents running the carry-on x-ray. They called for a female agent three times before one showed up and ushered me to the pat-down area, just inside the scanner gates. She went and fetched my bins of stuff and put them on the chair in front of me.
You know when people say about wild animals that they are more scared of you than you are of them? This also applied to my pat-down agent. I would go so far as to say that she was almost terrified. Incredibly nervous, to the point that I felt bad for her and smiled at her and told her I knew how the search went when she started stammering an explanation. At one point during the search, after I said, “I am okay with you touching me wherever you want,” she replied, “we have to say all of it every time because you never know when it’s a test.” I wonder now if she initially thought I was a TSA plant because so few people, particularly women, opt out of the scanner. My guess is that she hadn’t done many searches.
The pat-down/search: she had me stand facing the gates and passengers in line with my legs spread and my arms out. Standing behind me, with gloves on, she thoroughly patted down my not-long hair. I mean, ridiculously thoroughly, like she was delaying. She asked me if I was sore anywhere or had any injuries (no). She then felt up and down both of my arms, down my back and sides, and along my waistband, outside my clothes. She talked about what she was doing continuously, even though she frequently misused words (“now I’m going to pat your arms” as she felt my back, for example) out of nervousness. She mentioned a few times that she was using the back or front of her hand, but I couldn’t feel a difference, and she said “oops” a couple of times and flipped her hand over, so I’m not sure if they have rules for where they have to do that.
She patted my butt lightly and not intrusively, and then came around to my front, where she spent a great deal of time feeling my ankles (delaying again?). She ran her hands up my legs, felt my inner thighs, and laid her hand flat against my genitals, which required her to push up on my baggy pants. At this point she remembered to tell me that I could have a privacy screen if I wanted one.
I had worried about the whole getting-felt-up-in-front-of-a-crowd thing, but the passengers coming through the security screening were so busy taking off their shoes and belts and managing their carry-ons and liquids and loose pants that no one was really watching us—except for two male TSA agents off to one side. One of them was looking over occasionally and then back at the line, but the other was by far the most uncomfortable part of the process for me. He was flat-out staring. Usually, when I’m stared at, I find that looking back with a neutral expression will snap the starer right out of it. Nothing doing. He had no problem overtly staring at me while my agent touched me all over.
Since we’d already done the groin-grope part of the search, I turned down the privacy screen (and I guessed it would add yet more time to the whole thing). She stood in front of me and felt along my waist again, and then thoroughly checked out my chest. I’m a busty chick, and I’m guessing the underwire in my bra was the problem: she felt along the edges of my breasts, pushing slightly, between them, and underneath them, lifting each a little with her hand while pushing under against my ribs. It didn’t hurt, and though awkward, probably wouldn’t have bothered me much had it not been for the staring agent.
I was told to stay in place while she went and swabbed her gloves (for explosive material from my awesome sweater-bombs, I’m guessing), which took a couple of minutes. Then I was cleared to put on my shoes and pretend I hadn’t just been felt up in order to board a plane. In total, I’d say opting out added around 25-30 minutes. In that time, *not a single other passenger, in any of the six lines I could see, opted for the pat-down.* A man who went through the backscatter scanner at the same two-line area as me was pulled for an enhanced pat-down after, from what I overheard, he left his boarding pass in his pants pocket. If you really want the full double-screening experience, that’s how to do it.
As reported by other travelers, I did feel pressure to go through the machine by the first agent, and I was delayed by opting out of the scanner. The things that surprised me:
–no other passengers opting out or protesting going through the scanners
–the overt rudeness of the staring agent.
–how long my stuff sat out of sight.
–that if I had followed instructions to the letter (everything out of your pockets), I would have been standing on the other side of the security gates from all of my money, ID, phone, boarding pass, my shoes, my medication, everything. I was really prepared, and even then I felt incredibly vulnerable without access to my basic belongings and identification.
–the nervousness and mistakes of my screener. I was ready to deal with rudeness, with pushy agents, even with a very invasive, groping search—I was not ready to deal with feeling concern for the person doing it.
All that said, I’m glad that I did it, and would do it again in a heartbeat.
Why did I do it? Although I think that most of the arguments that I’ve read and heard are valid and worthy (health concerns, that it’s a sham, questions about image storage and handling), for me it comes down to one: being strip-searched by a government agency as a condition of travel within the country violates my Fourth Amendment rights. The enhanced pat-down search on its own comes close to triggering that feeling in me, but the whole-body imaging scans step clearly over the line.
To address a few of the arguments I’ve had since returning: Yes, I feel the scanners are equivalent to a strip-search. The anonymity doesn’t matter to me—I wouldn’t feel comfortable taking my clothes off with a bag over my head in a room with a one-way mirror, either—nor is it the primary point. I have committed no crime, nor given any indication that I am likely to, so a search that renders me in any way naked with my hands held over my head while I hold perfectly still is unjust. It’s not about embarrassment or shame or what a low-level government worker might think about my body. It’s about my rights to my body, and it’s about digging my heels in when I recognize I’m on a slippery slope.
That last part is significant. While they feel great, have some effect, and I’ll continue to go when I feel like it, most of the protests or gatherings I’ve been to are groups of like-minded people in a like-minded city, yelling and waving signs to people who already agree with them (gay marriage protests in SF, anyone?). And honestly, most of my activism takes place on a virtual level: passing around infuriating links and emailing my representatives when I’m moved deeply enough. It’s something, but frequently it doesn’t feel like much of anything. This felt like something, complete with risk and an actual effect (discomforting an agent, slowing the process down, showing others you don’t have to go in). It’s not quite civil disobedience to opt for the pat-down, but it is civil inconvenience.
Regardless of where the enhanced screenings go from here, it’s going to be great to have opted out. If the whole-body scans continue, you can say you opted out in the early days. If they make them mandatory, you can rest assured you actually did something when you could. And if enough people opt out, and write real on-paper letters to the DHS and the airlines and their elected officials, and a more rational and less demeaning system is put in place, you can say that you had a part in it.
Suggestions about how to file complaints from the EFF.
This is fabulous: Matt Kernan decides not to go through the backscatter or the pat-down as a condition of his leaving the airport. Worth reading the whole thing.
An interesting (and satisfyingly science-y) write-up of the potential health concerns.
And just a couple of the horror stories:
A little searching will also give you dozens of stories of people who feel assaulted by the enhanced pat-downs.