The TSA Emperor Has No Clothes

Flyertalk member kokonutz asks a series of (not-G rated, as he’s wont to do) questions:

Is it illegal to moan with pleasure when the TSA fondles your junk?

Enquiring minds want to know.

Is it illegal to get wood from a good rub?

Is it illegal to tip for a good rub?

Is it illegal to request a happy ending?

Is it illegal to keep going through security, exiting then regoing through security so you can get your junk rubbed a lot?

He follows up with more:

Is it illegal to say at the start of the rub down, ‘You can do everything. But I don’t kiss on the mouth.’?

… Is it illegal to request hot oil with your rub down?

Perhaps my favorite idea for fun at the checkpoint is this:

Please be sure to print this (.pdf) on a good color printer. then leave it in your front pocket where it will readily be discovered during a thorough groin grope. If the TSO has any issue about the content, simply get defensive and tell him your medical status is none of his business and if he had changed his gloves he has nothing to worry about anyway.

Now, I don’t actually believe any of this stuff is useful in terms of effective protest.

It goes without saying that the nude-o-scopes (or retaliatory ‘enhanced’ groping for non-compliant passengers) is not a meaningful contribution to security.

  • The backscatter (nude-o-scope) machines don’t see inside body cavities. Terrorists know this, and where they can hide ‘dangerous’ items even if they get picked for the full body imaging.

  • The machines aren’t particularly widespread yet. Even where they exist, they frequently aren’t available at all screening lines. (Weekend before last in Seattle they were at two of three lines, I just chose the line without the machine.) They don’t screen everyone, in most cases just whomever is next after the last person exits the machine. Everyone else in line while the nude-o-scope is in use just goes through the standard metal detector.

  • Terrorists can send several people through security, most won’t get scanned.

  • Security resources are being focused on people in general, at random (unless a screener thinks you’re cute, in which case they’re likely to flag you as a favor to their buddies, as a friend relayed to me about her experience a couple of days ago). That’s hardly the best use of resources and diverts focus from real threats.

But at the same time, the TSA gropers have no decision-making authority. Making their life difficult doesn’t get us anywhere. And at the checkpoint is probably the wrong place to assert yourself, you don’t have much power there, it’s essentially a martial law zone and that’s not where any given passenger has the most leverage.

So what we do need is media scrutiny, and more importantly a constituency that politicians need to be responsive to or more to the point are afraid not to be responsive to.

Some pilots are pressing for an exemption. They may well get it. They say they’re not a threat, they could even crash planes if they were and don’t need to take anything dangerous through security. But as commenters on this blog point out, that would just create a way to fake credentials in order to circumvent ‘security’ procedures. And there’s not a real logical reason to exempt pilots afraid of radiation and not very frequent flyers (pilots usually only go through security once a day for all their flights, don’t work that many days a month, so aren’t the most frequent folks to pass through security — they’re just an organized constituency and a union so they have a bit of pull with the administration).

Remember the long-gone puffer machines? They didn’t work. But that wasn’t enough to get rid of them. We needed a new boondoggle, something more expensive for an interest group to profit from in order to push them out. Those companies were then incentivized to make the case to their members of Congress.

So my belief is that we need media scrutiny over how bad the status quo is. And we need something that a constituency will benefit from in order to push for change. And we need a plausible narrative to offer about how the replacement is even better for security.

See, I’ve been around DC too long and have had too many friends work for Members, for campaigns, and for lobby shops. And it’s abundantly clear how the political process works from here, even if it’s not how the process is covered in the media. It’s mostly a kabuki game.

An interest group makes friends with an influential member (or members) of Congress. They deliver campaign cash, or a block of voters, or volunteers. They become important. Or they just utilize the services of someone with a long-term relationship to the influential Member(s). It’s not that the Members are easily bought, but in the context of large bills small favors are easy to do. Even Republicans who campaigned against government spending don’t want to give up to the power to do favors for their friends (earmarks). Eric Cantor needed to credibly signal his commitment to do favors in advance of this month’s earlier elections, in order to raise cash from corporate contributors, so he announced that he’d favor earmarks even before the voting.

(As an aside, there’s no special reason why we’d get good outcomes without these influences. But it’s difficult to get anything done sans them. And getting rid of campaign cash just shifts the influencers, not the influence, to those who get out the vote more effectively from those who contribute, or to those with insider connections over those who aren’t as well-connected but can rent their access. There’s not an easy solution to remove ‘influence’ and not an expectation of better policy even if you could, as long as some people are deciding what others can and cannot do, and how to spend their resources.)

If you’ve ever gotten a direct mail piece asking for your response and including a dollar bill in it, you’ve seen reciprocity at work. It comes cheap. A small favor is done for us, we feel obligated to return the favor. Members’ friends take care of them, are their friends, and let them know when something is needed in return. It’s just helping out someone you know and trust.

Of course there are limits to this process. There has to be an on-face reasoonable narrative about how the request beenfits the public good. So the person isn’t asking to benefit themselves, they can speak from the perspective of having unique knowledge of a situation, and offering their advice on how to make legislation ‘better’. And if the Member is questioned they need to be in a psotion to articulate a reason for their earmark or other legislative language insertion. The on-face reasonable narrative is key.

In this case we have ‘security’.

And so we have these nude-o-scopes we’re now being subjected to.

It’s not enough that people object to the invasion of privacy. Because the folks charged with implementing the policy need to save face. They can’t admit they were wrong or they lose credibility and capital. In order to back down they have to have a consistent way to do it while furthering their publicly stated objectives. So something ‘better’ for security can replace the current disaster, but the current disaster can’t simply be dismantled. Too many politicians, bureaucrats, and interests are wedded to it to simply yield without a major uprising or shift in power (in which case, the new powerbrokers can shut down a project that then embarasses their predecessors and punishes their backers — if indeed those backers were solely aligned to a single party).

And that’s how Washington works.

Meanwhile the people are told to trust their experts. The nude-o-scopes can’t save images, so we shouldn’t be concerned. Except that they can save images but the feature can’t be made functional. Except that it can. But then we’re supposed to believe it’s just ‘a few bad apples’ and it’s not reasonable to expect or be concerned.

We need more media. We need an interest group to benefit from pushing for a new less-intrusive model. But shenanigans at the checkpoint — while making us at least feel as though we have some personal illusion of control over a situation where we otherwise have almost none — does little to affect change.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Just to clarify one point: not every pilot out there is super senior and nearing retirement age. Far more of us are younger, much more junior on the totem pole, and have to work just as many days per month as people with “real” jobs. So we are indeed exposed to the additional radiation (and we’re getting nuked simply by doing our jobs anyway; that study was all but buried by the airlines decades ago, I just learned of it in my last recurrent training earlier this year) far more than, if I may phrase it this way, mere passengers. Even business travelers are flying far, far less often than the crewmembers.

  2. Which media do you expect to do this hard-hitting fact finding? There are fewer and fewer news organizations left with the wherewithal to pull off the investigative journalism that would be required here.

    Fox news won’t touch it, nor will conservative radio–they probably view this as a patriotism issue and not as a violation of privacy. It’s probably up to the NY Times.

  3. Excellent analysis. I agree with 99.95% of it. The only heartburn here is that you’re effectively implying that grassroots efforts can’t work, which based on the Tea Party, is clearly not the case (that’s just the most recent example, there are obviously many others). If shenanigans at the airport become commonplace, causing widespread protest amongst the TSOs (hostile work environment, anyone?), leadership’s hand could be forced in the matter. Granted that’s a pie in the sky scenario, but one can always hope… no?

  4. Many of the TSA agents are just drones working for low wages. Why make their life any worse? If you want to get rid of this then organize and create a PAC. Write to your local congress person, senator, etc. Giving a lowly TSA agent a hard time, for doing their JOB…smacks of a lack of class. That is beyond acceptance and simply disgraceful and boorish behavior. There is no need for that, period.

    Do not complain, boycott, or enact any form of civil protest until you have written your congress person and both senators. Once you have spoken truth to power, then other means may be necessary. However, I bet few have taken the time to organize and just want to mess up another human beings day.

    We have the privilege of getting on an aircraft and flying to another part of the state, country, continent, or world. Many of us get to do this for tickets that costs between two months and up to eight months of their salary. Yet, you think it is your God giving right as American to kill the messenger? Have you any shame?

    That is why I applaud this post Gleff…it is on the right path. This is an important article, from a highly respected member of the frequent flyer community. Bravo! Bravo!

  5. If you want to get rid of the scopes, what exactly do you propose to increase security? I see a lot of complaining in the blogs and in FT, but no proposals as to alternate screening methods.

    I haven’t experienced the new procedures yet, so I withhold judgment on them for now. But if there’s a better alternative, let’s hear about it.

  6. I agree that’s one way to end this nonsense; the other is a court decision finding that using the scanners as a primary screening violates the 4th Amendment. The simple act of purchasing a ticket is not reasonable grounds for a search as invasive as the scanner and/or patdown, and a court determination to that effect would force TSA to use the scanners as secondary screenings after, e.g., someone alarms the metal detector.

  7. Jeff,

    Isn’t employment as a TSA groper the dream job of a would-be paedophile or sexual predator? Government sanctioned fantasy fulfilment at the public expense.

    Robert Elliott

  8. Great article.

    Do you have any speculation guesses on this next alternative thing then? Trusted traveler programs? Something else fancy/technological/expensive?

  9. Nice analysis. I want the best security screening technology, and am generally satisfied with how TSA screeners conduct themselves. I don’t find it particularly inconvenient, either: I have rarely waited more than three minutes to be screened over many, many flights over the last few years.
    But I especially hate how the nude-o-scope requires you to pose like a criminal. That’s a big, big departure from how I feel during typical screening.
    Like mangoMan, I am interested in your ideas to help keep passengers safe.

  10. Gee, funny how civil liberties are never an issue with these politicians when the victims are dark skined or leftist protestors. This has been going on a lot longer and it started with the conservative Supreme Court’s weaking of Warren Court protections of illegal searches and seizures by law enforcement but I guess no one wants to talk about that. Clearly its ok to be against police powers when it actually might effect YOU, yea that is ideological consistency at its best eh? You know you can always count on libertarians, NOT!

  11. I think it’s a good idea to gripe to the TSA gropers. True, they don’t directly deserve it, but it’s a fast track to getting those issues elevated to people who DO matter.

    Let’s face it, the politicians just don’t care that we hate the security theater.

  12. I recently had the opportunity to fly El Al from Tel Aviv. Every passenger is interviewed. Because I had never flown El Al previously, I was given a “more thorough”. I found it to be done very well by bright people with good training who knew what they were looking for. Yes there is profiling, but this is one time I am ok giving up some rights to be safe, as opposed to having babies and people of a certain age give up their cane while being examined. This model should be reviewed and the good parts employed in the states.
    The other idea is the use of dogs. Dogs have a “nose” that can be trained for explosives, including places where the nudeoscopes just don’t work. Seems as though it would be less intrusive. Maybe in conjunction with a few lobbies, aspca and others we could get some clout. How about a 60 minutes expose on the lobby behind the nudeoscopes and the back door jockeying around their purchase!!!

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