TSA Gets Grabby

Since the recent unveiling of the Transportation Security Administration’s “enhanced” security measures, there’s been nothing but bad press for airport security—and with good reason. Pilots and security experts have criticized the inefficiency and ineffectualness of the system. Congressman Ted Poe has called the new body scanners a violation of the Fourth Amendment. While there’s still a debate over whether scanning equipment’s radiation emission presents a health risk, much of the controversy is now centered on the procedures’ violating aspects.

At the heart of the matter is the nude image-producing backscatter machines, which clearly show a person’s physical form including genitals. TSA maintains that faces are blurred with a privacy algorithm and that images are not stored, but these two claims have been met with skepticism, especially in light of the recent leaked body scans from a federal courthouse’s imaging device. Nevertheless, TSA Administrator John Pistole is insistent that more full-body scanners will be forthcoming, totaling 1,000 in the U.S. alone by the end of next year. (Rapiscan Systems, maker of the full-body scanner, is a client of former director of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff’s security consulting agency, and Chertoff lobbied heavily for the scanners’ implementation.)

If any aspect of the body image is blurry, that traveler may be subjected to further screening. Under the new rules, fingers and palms are used during body checks and agents’ hands must come into contact with the traveler’s genitalsNumerous women and men—most famously John Tyner, aka Mr. “Don’t Touch My Junk” —see this alone as a form of sexual assault. And while some Americans are laughing at Tyner’s choice of words, there’s little to laugh about when it comes to the actual pat-down experience, which would more accurately be described as a groping. Although travelers are supposed to be patted down by a same-sex agent, rape survivor Celeste was handled by a man who “cupped and patted [her] crotch with his palm.” Similarly, although the pat down is said to be optional, traumatized blogger Erin Chase stated that she was required to undergo it since the airport she was leaving from didn’t have advanced imaging technology. There’s a growing impression that TSA actually wants the pat downs to be as invasive and unpleasant as possible in order to discourage other passengers from opting out of the scanner. Newsweek detailed how profoundly problematic these searches are for sexual-assault victims, and MSNBC cataloged complaints from women without histories of abuse who still found the pat downs upsetting and invasive.

Pistole has admitted the body scanners detect sanitary napkins and that such detection may necessitate a supplementary pat down—certainly a humiliating and unpleasant experience for both the menstruating woman and the TSA employee who has to … ask her to remove her pad? Or simply grope it as part of the more invasive pat down? What about travelers who wear external medical devices, prostheses or wigs? It’s unclear how TSA plans to respond to bodies that deviate in any way from expectations, although at least one traveler–flight attendant and cancer survivor Cathy Bossi–was required to remove her prosthetic breast in order to show it to an agent during her pat down. Of course transgender people, like the disabled, have been dealing with confused and insensitive TSA measures for years.

“It’s a no-win situation for transpeople,” says Mara Keisling of the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) on the full-body scan vs. pat-down bind. “When transpeople are outed at the airport, it can cost them their job or their life.” While Keisling stresses that most TSA employees are polite and well meaning, the situation is problematic since transpeople are already at greater risk of violence or social sanctions. NCTE is already at work on updates to their existing travel tips for transgender fliers.

Recent traveler anger has even brought old items to the fore, like the 2008 video clip of a TSA employee forcibly patting down a three-year-old girl who screams “stop touching me!” Another incident currently receiving attention involves a young woman’s court case against TSA officials who allegedly exposed her breasts during a search in 2008. It seems almost guaranteed that gross abuses of power such as these will multiply as agents are given permission to further invade the privacy and personal space of  travelers.

Some proposed forms of protest have caught on, like National Opt Out Day and We Won’t Fly, but neither of these is a solution for assault victims or transgender people who have to fly regularly for their jobs. Concerned citizens can contact their representatives with concerns and complaints, but in the meantime all travelers in America will have to choose between being seen naked by a stranger or groped through clothes by one.

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Photo courtesy Flickr user redjar under Creative Commons 2.0.


  1. absolutely unbelievable! ACLU has some know-your-rights info on their site though: http://www.aclu.org/technology-and-liberty/airpor

  2. The first time I saw something on TV about these X-ray body scanners, the first thing that went through my min was "Can they see tampons and pads?" And now that we know they can, women are now going to have to announce in front of everyone at the airport that they are on their period and that the object shown inside of their body cavity is a tampon and not a smuggled weapon. Lovely.

  3. It's going to end the moment there is nobody flying planes anymore. Empty airports and no ticket sales for the airlines will cause people to stepback and say 'wait a moment, we don't need to be this through after all'

  4. This is an excellent overview of the issues. Thanks, Monica!

    Esmeralda, there's a widespread misconception that the TSA can see inside the body, but in fact they can't – and that's one of the major limitations of the scanners that a terrorist could exploit by hiding explosives where the sun don't shine. The scanners *can* and do show pads as well as incontinence products. Interviewed in the New York Times last week, TSA head John Pistole confirmed this, but couldn't say whether a pad would trigger an "enhanced" pat-down.

  5. If women were ever going to complain about anything, now is the time to write letters to airlines, airports,
    the TSA, Congress, etc Where the TSA think could be going…all it takes is a nutcase to
    put a explosives up their anus or vagina and you can be sure body cavity search are next.
    I know I for one do not wish to live in a police state that takes pictures of my body or else be groped
    at the airport in order to travel. No flying for me or my family until TSA backs off and profiles people
    as Israel does which is less invasive.

  6. Very disappointing that the Care2 petition above makes you choose between Mrs., Mr., Ms., and Dr. as a required field before you can sign the petition. Boooo.

  7. I’m so glad I don’t live in USA.

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