Friday, December 3, 2010

TSA, Thanksgiving Travel and Me

After reading all the articles on the risks of the back-scatter technology (never mind the privacy implications) and watching the videos of screaming children getting "enhanced" pat-downs, I was nervous about traveling for this Thanksgiving holiday in the US. I was ready to 'opt-out', but wasn't sure how I felt about the "enhanced" pat down.

Back in October I received an 'old-style' pat-down from a male TSA agent in LAX. I was fine with it. I did not feel violated, nor did I feel that the agent was missing out on anything by not feeling the underwire in my bra.  The agent was friendly, apologetic for the inconvenience and even found a place he could search my bag where I could sit and watch (my injured knee wasn't up to doing anymore standing after a day at the Women's Conference).

Then I saw the videos of the screaming children and I suddenly became very uncomfortable with this. Many women, including myself, (and men) have an event in their past when they were touched/fondled/groped/etc in an unwelcome manner. To have to relive that moment in public at the airport just to travel is unsettling.

So, very nervous, I entered SJC on Thursday morning... only to find most of the back-scatter machines turned off. The one I saw in use was being used to scan a women's personal wheelchair - I couldn't help but think that was a perfect use for the scanner!  The woman, like all travelers in wheelchairs, was receiving an 'old-style' pat down.

I went through, like everyone else, in the same fashion I have for years - removed my belt, watch, shoes, jacket, liquids, laptop and medications...*whew* and "simply" went through.

It was the same on my return through Seattle. One machine was on, but people could just choose to go through a different line. No questions asked, no extra screening.

What made me angry was all of the main-stream news outlets, including our local KGO, reporting that the back-scatter machines had not slowed down the lines. The main report I heard was that passengers would rather get the scan and get through quickly.

But that wasn't true at all. The machines were not on. The "enhanced" pat-downs weren't happening.  How dare they say the launch weekend was a success when they were not using them?

That's a waste of our money and a gross misrepresentation of the events. I'm afraid Bruce Schneier has it right - the TSA is not going to back down, because they'd seem like idiots.  Another example of how lobbyists for manufacturers are shaping policy, instead of policy shaping manufacturing.

The TSA is inconsistent at every airport I go to. During that trip to LA, the TSA ID checker screamed at me when I approached his podium with my traveling companion.  He would not begin her screening until I returned to behind this blue line, which was difficult as the entire line had already moved up.  Yes, I can read (but thanks for pointing it out) the sign saying to stay behind the line until he was ready to process us - I just assumed that, like every other airport, you could go up with your entire party.  At least the agent that had to do my pat-down in LAX was friendlier.  Oh, yeah, in Seattle, they actually have a sign on the podium directing people to be at each side - they can process you faster if you come up with your entire party or 2 at a time (even with strangers).

Another disconcerting thing I noticed: no where to do a private screening if requested!  Why not have a few privacy screens up?  They could be set up like a maze or other formation to take up the least amount of space while still providing privacy (and room for your witness, if requested).

Boy, am I glad I'm not flying for Christmas!