Is this the beginning of the end for the TSA’s full-body scanners?

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By Christopher Elliott

To absolutely no one’s surprise, the mainstream media last week ignored a legitimate grassroots protest against the TSA’s allegedly invasive full-body scanners.

Oh sure, there were whispers of National Opt-Out Week here and there. The trade publication Government Security News reported them, although it left readers with the impression that this action would fizzle. A lone op-ed in a New Jersey newspaper recognized the protest and supported it.

The TSA briefly acknowledged Opt-Out Week in a blog post that came across as both wooden and threatening. Wooden, in the sense that it described the opt-out options in almost clinical terms; and threatening in the sense that it implied passengers could be arrested for taking photos of the screening process (“While the TSA does not prohibit photographs at screening locations, local laws, state statutes, or local ordinances may,” it warned).

But most media outlets — staffed by junior editors and wide-eyed interns during the American Thanksgiving week — simply blew off Opt-Out Week.

They’re clueless

They don’t understand. Opt-Out Week wasn’t the end of the protest. It is the beginning.

Organizers claim they made their point, bringing attention to a screening method that is, by some accounts, both dangerous and unconstitutional. Enough passengers made the pledge to opt out until the TSA decommissions these poorly tested machines, their numbers growing every day, that it’s only a matter of time before screening areas reach gridlock.

And then the TSA will have a decision to make. Does it abandon the last of these scanners and try something different? (It’s already quietly backed away from the most controversial X-ray scanners.) Or does it double down on its foolish investment in an unproven technology, buying more machines, refusing to subject them to independent tests, and insisting that the body-scanners are safe — and that we should just take their word for it?

I’m betting they’ll unplug ’em.

You’re wrong

My story about opting out of the TSA’s scanners last week drew a massive response on my consumer advocacy site, on the Huffington Post and on LinkedIn.

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Most of them were well intended but, unfortunately, terribly misguided. I’ll summarize them here.

“I’m not going to let my Thanksgiving vacation be held hostage to your little protest.”

No worries. I flew last Monday, and I opted out, and there were no noticeable delays. In fact, there were no reports of delays anywhere, which makes me wonder if, like the last time we protested the scanners, TSA agents simply waved passengers through. (Here’s how to handle the TSA when you travel.)

That’s what they did with me.

“I’m a million-miler, elite-level frequent flier on [insert name of airline]. Your silly protest is disruptive to the rest of us who just need to get to their destination.”

No you’re not. Experienced business travelers avoid Thanksgiving week at all costs. Besides, if you’re a real road warrior, you already have TSA Pre-Check credentials, and might be able to breeze through security. Talk to the hand, my friend.

“Your post was sensationalistic and irresponsible. The government has repeatedly reassured us that full-body scanners are safe, and can be used as a primary screening method. Also, my nephew, who is a TSA agent, says the machines are absolutely harmless.”

Sometimes you’ve gotta cut through all the rhetoric and tell it like it is, and if you think that’s sensationalistic, then I’m guilty as charged.

I, for one, am not going to take the government’s “word” that its scanners are safe, and I’m definitely not going to believe your nephew. Get a Ph.D, conduct an independent test on the scanners, and then let’s have a conversation.

Say, why don’t we all meet in that Texas warehouse where they’ve mothballed those X-ray scanners? We could do it between your nephew’s chemotherapy treatments?

“Air travel is a privilege, not a right.”

Wrong. Freedom of movement is a recognized constitutional right. And air travel is a form of movement. Bottom line: You have the right to fly without being hassled.

“Your post gave comfort to the enemy. I question your patriotism.”

I question yours. Protesting the TSA’s irresponsible screening methods isn’t just my right as an American citizen; it’s my duty. The enemy would be even more comforted if we didn’t have this debate. That’s a sure sign that the bad guys have won. Think about it.

I understand some of your comments, though I disagree with many of them. Sometimes the rightness of your cause isn’t apparent until it’s in the rear view mirror. Only then does everything fall into place.

I agree with the protesters. The TSA’s wrongheaded scan/pat-down proposition raises basic health, privacy — and yes, civil rights — issues.

Maybe someday you’ll understand.

Do you think the opt-out protest will change the way passengers are screened?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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