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So. The TSA. They are doing some nasty shit right now. Almost the entire internet has an opinion; almost the entire internet thinks they're evil.

And they are. But not for some of the reasons people are saying. And some of the protest ideas are pretty wrong too. At this point, I'm tired of explaining to everyone why some of these arguments are bullshit, so I'm just going to put it all in one place here.

Why you shouldn't hate the TSA

The Radiation

The x-ray backscatter machines are probably not that dangerous (pdf). You get more radiation from background while flying. The dose fits into the uncertainty in the "365 mrem/year" background estimate I quote when I give tours of the nuclear research reactor where I work.

Oh, the UCSF scientists raise a valid point, and we should continue to study the risk. The fact that we don't know is scarier to me than any of the handwringing I've seen about radiation. But I'm still not scared, and you shouldn't be either. Also, millimeter wave scanners (an alternate naked picture technology) do not use ionizing radiation to take their images, so at best the radiation argument eliminates one kind of machine and not the whole system.

The Constitution

Sorry, but the courts have held that airport searches are reasonable, constitutional searches. For example, in United States v. Aukai (2007), the 9th Circuit found that,
Under this rationale the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the constitutionality of so-called “administrative searches.” [...] We have held that airport screening searches, like the one at issue here, are constitutionally reasonable administrative searches because they are “conducted as part of a general regulatory scheme in furtherance of an administrative purpose, namely, to prevent the carrying of weapons or explosives aboard aircraft, and thereby to prevent hijackings.”
The footnote on that decision goes on to state,
The Supreme Court has not specifically held that airport screening searches are constitutionally reasonable administrative searches.   On three occasions, however, the Supreme Court has suggested that airport screening searches are constitutionally reasonable administrative searches.   See Miller, 520 U.S. at 323, 117 S.Ct. 1295;  Edmond, 531 U.S. at 47-8, 121 S.Ct. 447(“Our holding also does not affect the validity of border searches or searches at places like airports and government buildings, where the need for such measures to ensure public safety can be particularly acute.”);  Von Raab, 489 U.S. at 675 n. 3, 109 S.Ct. 1384 (approving of lower court decisions upholding airport screening searches where there was no reason for suspicion).
Whether you agree with the court or not, it's not so cut and dried as "FOURTH AMENDMENT!!!!" Hopefully someone takes it to the Supreme Court, who then looks and goes "wait, that's messed up," but we'll see.

And now, why you should

The body scanners remove from individuals the power to choose when and where and under what conditions they will be seen naked.

People have legitimate concerns about their own privacy. Some feel ashamed of their bodies, and don't want them seen. Even if they're working on this and nobody should have to feel that, forcing them to expose themselves to someone else doesn't help. Some are disabled, and have devices such as ostomy bags that they'd rather not show off. Others are living as a gender other than the one they were born into, and forcing them to go through the scanners outs them unnecessarily.

And even if you're a young, cis, able-bodied individual whose body is not subject to mockery, it's still just plain wrong to give you a choice between being seen naked, or not flying to become employed, see your family, or visit a dying friend. Oh, but there's another option! Which brings me to...

The enhanced patdowns are intrusive, uncomfortable, and often humiliating. They exist partly to punish the people who don't want to be seen naked.

The choice between "do this or don't fly" is coercive, immoral, and unfair. When conducted properly, the patdowns have left some passengers feeling violated. Conducted improperly, they turn into sexual assault. While you're supposed to have a same-gender screener, there have been incidents where this was not the case, and sexual assault is not limited to male on female or even opposite-gender interactions. The TSA is supposed to tell you what they do before they do it; sometimes they don't. For people who have previously experienced sexual assault, the patdowns can be extremely triggering, even when conducted properly. Given that about 10% of the population has or will be assaulted in their lifetime (RAINN), that's a whole hell of a lot of trauma for no good reason.

The patdowns were introduced after resistance to the scanners started building, and exist partly to force people to take the lesser of two evils and just go through the scanner, a fact which has been admitted by some people on the ground and denied by higher-ups. Opting out involves a certain amount of public humiliation -- TSOs yelling "We have an opt out!" and neglecting to inform people that the "enhanced pat down" can be performed in private instead of in front of everyone.

Scanners and enhanced patdowns are not very effective, certainly not enough to justify their existence

They're not catching terrorists. They're not making us safer. They've removed a small subset of attacks from a terrorist's repertoire, but everyone has at least one good cavity for hiding items. As the oft-quoted expert Bruce Schneier (long post! Lots more links!) keeps saying, the thing that will stop terrorists is intelligence, and the things that have made us safer since 9/11 are passenger awareness and reinforced cockpits.

Our liberty and way of life is more important than getting risk to zero.

The Benjamin Franklin quote, "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety," has been thrown around a lot lately, and it applies here. Yes, we should be safe. Yes, we might have to sacrifice a bit to get there, but this is too far. We accept risk in other areas of our life. For example, over 30,000 people are killed each year in car accidents, and yet car crashes are not a major issue in elections the way terrorism is. Let's take the risk we have and just live with it.

How to do something (and how not to)

Don't sexually harass the TSOs.

I've seen a lot of this on the internet. Get boners! Wear kilts while commando! Moan loudly! Talk about how hot this makes you! All suggestions geared towards making the TSO doing the patdown more uncomfortable, by raising the sexual tension level.

This is a bullshit idea. TSOs are people too -- they get up in the morning and get paid not too much to do a pretty shitty job (a contributing factor in this problem). Just because they are being coerced into touching you does not give you the right to make their day any worse. By doing this you're sinking to their level. Two wrongs don't make a right, and I thought people learned that in kindergarten. We have the moral high ground here, let's not lose it by descending into psychologically violent resistance.

And yes, they are following an immoral order. But they're being financially coerced into it -- don't perform the responsibilities of your job, or we'll fire you. They have grounds to sue the TSA for providing a hostile, sexually harassing workplace, and then sue them harder if they retaliate. I hope someone does.

Instead: Protest politely!

Inform the TSO performing your patdown that, "I'm really sorry you have to do this. I want you to know that I don't like it/feel uncomfortable/feel violated by this procedure." If you have the time/energy/ability, follow up with "When you are done here, may I speak to your supervisor?" Tell the supervisor the same thing. Keep going as far as you can up the line. Fill out the comment card. Tell the ACLU. Write your congressperson, and tell them how you voted for them/in their district and you would love to re-elect them if only they would take action to curb this violation of people's rights. Include lots of patriotism.

This has the chance to actually get something done. This way the TSA can't avoid knowing that people hate them, and can't frame the dissenters as jerks. Your congressperson knows that you would rather elect someone who protected your rights than someone who fought the terrorists at all costs, and they're the ones who can write legislation that actually affects the agency.

Finally, I don't think National Opt-Out Day has much chance of doing anything other than pissing people off -- about the protest, not the TSA. Was it the TSA who kept them from getting home in time for pumpkin pie? No, it was the assholes in kilts.


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July 2011

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