I recently left Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport for a trip to Denver.
This was my first trip since the full-body scanners started making headlines. I have a lot of objections to these so-called "digital strip searches." You can see my objections at the end of this post.
Now, onto my Sky Harbor experience. I put in my time reading about all this, so I knew a few things. First, I knew that not all travelers go through the full-body scanner. Second, I knew I could opt out and get an enhanced pat-down.
That knowledge didn’t help me at all.
We showed up at the C Gate TSA checkpoint in Terminal 4. I wasn’t sure what the full-body scanners look like, and I expected an explanation and the offer of a pat-down. I got neither. They herded me into a machine and said "turn and put your hands up." I didn’t know if I was in some sort of upgraded magnetometer or a body scanner, and none of the officers told me beforehand.
A female officer then let me out, but then realized the scan didn’t work. "We didn’t do it right," she said. Read that again: They didn’t do it right. All I had to do was stand and wait for a few seconds. And they didn’t do it right.
Rather than sending me through again, the officer sent me to a male officer for a pat-down. The first thing I did was ask if I’d just gone through a magnetometer – this was to confirm I’d been through a body scanner. By this point, I could see the brand name "Rapiscan" on the machine. For the record, that is the company that engaged Homeland Security director Michael Chertoff as a consultant.
The TSA officer said it was a body scanner, not a regular mag. He then described what he was planning to do. The enhanced pat-down was time-consuming, but not particularly invasive. The officer didn’t seem thrilled about doing it, that’s for sure.
I was pretty disturbed that none of the agents offered to let me opt out before sending me into the scanner. I thought that was the procedure. There was no communication at all.
In Denver, the security line had regular magnetometers and body scanners. I didn’t catch a brand name on them, though. They looked different from those at Sky Harbor. The officers waved us through the mags, though it looked like some people went through the body scanners. I couldn’t catch the methods to who went where.
Here are my objections to the full-body scanners:
1. They’re not about security – they’re about money. These devices are expensive. And people like former Homeland Security director Michael Chertoff stand to make bank from their sales. one company spent $4.3 million in lobbying costs this year alone. Now, when a company spends that much lobbying, you know they are raking it in.
2. They’re not effective. There’s only so much these scanners can detect, and it seems their limitations aren’t worth their costs or benefits. But companies like Rapiscan are raking in big bucks from the people who shrug and say "well, if it keeps us safe."
3. The nation’s largest association of pilots is so unconvinced by TSA safety studies of the devices that is has instructed member pilots to opt for enhanced pat-downs (which are also causing lots of angst). And unlike the X-ray devices you’ll see at the dentist’s office, the backscatter and millimeter-wave machines airports are using aren’t being used with any safety precautions. Worse yet, TSA officers do not seem to be very good at using them, as you saw above. I’m also skeptical of the specious "you’re exposed to more radiation during the flight" argument – different bands of radiation at different intensities have different effects. And until the companies who manufacture these devices allow an independent examination of the equipment, I won’t be satisfied.
Be sure to see what happened during a recent encounter I had with TSA employees in Chicago.
Want to know more? Here are some good links: