New TSA security: necessary or ludicrous?

Faith Merino · November 23, 2010 · Short URL:

A poll finds that most travelers are in support of advanced airport screening, but only for others

There are a few words of wisdom that I try to live by: Treat others the way you would want to be treated, respect your elders, always say “please” and “thank you,” and never let a boyfriend take naked pictures of you.   

Apparently, not everyone shares my feelings on that last policy.  A poll conducted by the Washington Post and ABC News found that out of 514 polled adults, 64% support the use of advanced body imaging technology in airport scanners that produces an image of a traveler’s naked body.  Additionally, 52% are not concerned about the possibility of scanners posing a health risk (35% said they are concerned, and 13% said that have no opinion either way).

Before everyone marvels at the wisdom of the crowd, I might also point out that in that same study, 40% of respondents believe that a person’s race should be a definitive factor in whether or not they get taken aside for “advanced screening” (read: felt-up).  A full 55% believe a person should be taken aside for advanced screening based on his or her nationality.  So evidently, when the chips are down, the first thing to go is 50 years of civil rights progress.

The line is drawn at advanced pat-downs.  When it comes to getting groped, 50% of respondents say the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) goes too far, while 48% are in full support of the invasion of personal space.  So…what I’m reading is that respondents are in full support of other people getting the advanced pat-down…just not themselves.

I, personally, think the advanced airport security is ridiculous, and I will argue my case with as little hyperbole as possible. 

Firstly, I refer to Exhibit A: bitter, underpaid airport personnel.   Anyone who has ever flown out of LAX knows that mean, resentful airport personnel can make your trip a whole lot worse and more complicated than it would have been otherwise. 

There are a couple of things to consider here.  Number one: the reason that attempted bombers have been able to slip by security in the past is because security personnel DON’T CARE.  TSA screeners have the highest turnover rate of all government employees, and several studies have shown that poorly trained, underpaid airport security guards frequently allow lethal weapons and other prohibited items through X-ray machines and scanners.  Why?  BECAUSE THEY DON’T CARE.  It does no good to invest in expensive, advanced technology when the people running that technology aren’t paying attention anyway. 

Not that I go out of my way to test the rules, but I frequently try to slip certain items by security when flying.  I don’t like to put my shampoos and cleansers in my checked bag because the bag invariably gets thrown around, and by the time I get to my destination, I open my bag to find exploded bottles and my clothes drenched in facial cleanser (and before anyone snootily suggests I put my bottles in a Ziplock bag, I’ve tried that).  So when I think I can get away with it, I put my cleansers in my backpack or purse, and I get through airport security probably 4 out of 5 times.  Ironically, the one airport in which I have always been able to get prohibited items through security is JFK.  Go figure.

The second issue to consider here is the fact that these are the people who are going to be checking out our nudie pics.  True—maybe it will give them an incentive to pay attention (depending on who's being scanned).  But if the TSA can’t manage to hire and retain well-trained professionals (again, I will refer readers to LAX), then who exactly is running the advanced imaging technology scanners? 


The TSA has obviously thought of this, so it has promised that no scanned image of a person’s naked body will be saved.  But an investigative report published by Gizmodo last week found that U.S. Marshalls operating an advanced body imaging scanner in an Orlando, Florida courthouse did just that, saving 35,000 scanned images.  Thankfully, the scanner was the grainier type that doesn’t show embarrassing skin folds and other bits and pieces, but the fact remains that despite the prohibition on saving images, the U.S. Marshalls did anyway, which leads one to wonder how hard it would be for any newly hired, poorly trained, underpaid Joe Schmoe security guard to do just that. 

But all of this is being done in the name of security, so how cynical can we really get?  I will refer you to Exhibit B: the TSA’s security measures have always been reactive.  The TSA has always been one step behind those looking to take down a plane.  Airport security only became a serious issue after the 9/11 bombing, and then when the would-be “shoe bomber,” Richard Ried, tried to ignite his own shoes on a plane, the airport began making people take off their shoes at the airport.  It wasn’t until Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to take down a Detroit-bound airplane last Christmas using a homemade explosive device that he had hidden in his underwear that the TSA began adopting the advanced body imaging scanners. 

How tight can security be if it’s always only reacting to things that have been attempted?  All that means is that would-be bombers will not try that exact technique again—instead of lighting their shoes on fire, they’ll ignite their belt or their wallet (which are not scanned, I might add).  With advanced body imaging technology, the logical next step is to hide prohibited items in bodily orifices.  I’m not going to be the alarmist who brings up the slippery slope argument that the TSA is going to start requiring cavity searches next, but the fact remains that if the TSA insists on implementing security measures to exclusively address plots that have already been attempted, there are always going to be loopholes.

Rather than investing in newer and more expensive scanning technology, the TSA should be investing in hiring qualified personnel, thoroughly training security guards, and retaining experienced TSA scanners.  The fact is that the new security measures are going to take a toll on TSA professionals, who are already more likely than other government employees to leave their jobs.  A recent poll of TSA personnel found that most feel uncomfortable with the new security measures, particularly the advanced pat-downs. 

“Molester, pervert, disgusting, an embarrassment, creep. These are all words I have heard today at work describing me, said in my presence as I patted passengers down,” said one TSA employee. “These comments are painful and demoralizing, one day is bad enough, but I have to come back tomorrow, the next day and the day after that to keep hearing these comments. If something doesn’t change in the next two weeks I don’t know how much longer I can withstand this taunting. I go home and I cry. I am serving my country, I should not have to go home and cry after a day of honorably serving my country.

What do you think of the new security measures?  Are you less likely to fly this holiday season because of the new scanners and pat-downs?  We’d like to hear what you think.

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