Saying “no” to TSA’s full body scan may come at a price

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By Christopher Elliott

Having second thoughts about those new full-body scanners being used at airports by the TSA Transportation Security Administration? The federal agency charged with protecting the nation’s transportation systems may want to take a second look — at you.

It apparently did when Karen Cummings refused to submit to a scan, which uses high-frequency radio waves to see through your clothes. Cummings, who works for a software company in Boston, described what subsequently happened to her at Logan Airport as “unnecessary” and “unpleasant.”

“The pat-down was completely thorough, as though I was a common criminal or a drug pusher,” she said. “The only place I was not touched was in my crotch — and isn’t that the one place they should be checking, after the underwear bomber?”

Concerns mount over TSAs advanced imaging technology

Cummings is part of a small but growing group of air travelers who say that they’re troubled by the TSA’s use of advanced imaging technology.

Last fall, the agency began installing 150 new scanners (including at Reagan National and BWI Marshall), and it plans to deploy an additional 450 this year. Some passengers are concerned about possible exposure to harmful radiation. (Experts say radiation levels are very low.)

Screening by a full-body scanner is optional for all passengers, according to the TSA. “Those who opt out may request alternative screening at the checkpoint, to include a pat-down,” said Greg Soule, an agency spokesman. Although he declined to offer details on the agency’s screening techniques, he added that checkpoint requirements for passengers departing from the United States haven’t changed since the underwear bomber incident last December. In other words, the TSA claims it isn’t pushing travelers into the scanners and punishing those who decline a scan.

Balancing privacy concerns with TSA screening procedures

But Cummings and others say they don’t feel as if they have a real choice.

“The additional screening makes you want to go through the scanner, as it is so much more impersonal in the long run,” she told me.

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And her experience is hardly an isolated one. Houston-based Web developer Cheryl Wise had a similar confrontation when she refused a scan in Denver earlier this year. A TSA screener ordered a “level two” search of her luggage.

“They opened every compartment of my computer bag. Then they emptied every pocket,” she recalled. “They wiped every electronic device separately with an explosives detection. And they wiped my shoes and the inside of my purse that held no electronics at all.”

Wise published the entire account on her blog, by-expression.com, under the headline, “TSA screening insanity.”

Security vs. passenger concerns

The TSA has its own blog. It uses the site to debunk claims that its tech toys are out of control. In a recent post, it praised the full-body scanners. The agency pointed out that since last year, agents had found such items as a pocket knife hidden on someone’s back and a syringe full of liquid concealed in a passenger’s underwear. “These finds demonstrate that imaging technology is very effective at detecting anomalies and can help TSA detect evolving threats to keep our skies safe,” the agency said.

Could this just be a case of a few rogue TSA agents? No, says security guru Bruce Schneier. He told me that he’d heard “lots of anecdotes” about extra screening, too. (Here’s how to handle the TSA when you travel.)

Uncomfortable and questionable

And then I went through one of the machines myself, a few weeks ago in Salt Lake City. I passed through a magnetometer. An agent ushered me into a large device that looked a little like the teleporter from the Jeff Goldblum version of “The Fly.” He asked me to empty my pockets and hold my hands above my head.

I admit, the scan felt somewhat invasive, with me holding my hands in the air as if I were an apprehended fugitive. The widely circulated pictures of scanned people — every contour of their bodies visible and their faces electronically airbrushed away — didn’t make me feel any better. Were the hidden pocket knives and syringes filled with liquid worth all this? And what was in that syringe that the TSA confiscated, anyway?

I asked other travelers about their experiences with refusing to use the devices. But I could find no hard evidence that the TSA was punishing screening dissidents in a systematic way.

Resisting the body scan

“I respectfully decline to go through the body scan,” reader Phil Kipnis said he told a TSA officer in San Francisco recently. The officer appeared “startled,” according to Kipnis. Then he pointed Kipnis, a Santa Clara, Calif., business owner, to the secondary screening area.

“A male TSA employee shook his head and ran the wand over my torso. He told me to collect my things and turned back to watch the other passengers,” he said.

I believe the TSA when it says that it has no formal policy of punishing passengers who don’t want to go through the full-body scanners. But it doesn’t need one. Just a few stories of overly watchful officers giving people a thorough once-over if they refuse may be enough to persuade reluctant air travelers to submit to a virtual strip-search or pocket emptying. And all it needs to reinforce those fears is an occasional shake of the head.

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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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