The idiocy of airport-scanner "Opt-Out Day."

Science, technology, and life.
Nov. 22 2010 8:06 AM

This Junk Won't Fly

The idiocy of airport-scanner "Opt-Out Day."

People in security lines. Click image to expand.
Should you opt out of an airport body scan?

In case you haven't heard, there's a big holiday coming up. No, I don't mean Thanksgiving. I mean the day before it. Wednesday is the busiest air travel day of the year, and a horde of paranoid zealots— techno-libertarians, Tea Partiers, rabble-rousers, Internet activists, and congressional demagogues —has decided to make it even worse. They're calling it "National Opt-Out Day." Rather than endure an electronic scan of your body at the security gate, they want you to "opt out" and force the Transportation Security Administration to physically inspect you. Their hero is John Tyner, the man who recorded himself a week ago as he warned a TSA officer not to "touch my junk."

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Ignore these imbeciles. Their plan would clog security lines and ruin your holiday for no good reason. They don't understand the importance of the electronic scans. They're wrong about the scanners' safety. And from the standpoint of dignity, their advice is insane. If you opt out of the scan, you'll get a pat-down instead. You'll trade a fast, invisible, intangible, privacy-protected machine inspection for an unpleasant, extended grope. In effect, you'll be telling TSA to touch your junk.

Here's what one of Opt-Out Day's instigators, an outfit calling itself We Won't Fly, is telling the public:

If you have to fly on November 24, opt out of the virtual strip search body scanners for your own health and privacy. Say "I opt out!" Tell your friends, family and community so they know how to protect themselves, too. Be prepared for delays and intimate TSA groping. At least you will avoid the risk of cornea damage and skin, breast and testicular cancer and the humiliation of a virtual strip search.

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It's hard to know where to start with this idiocy. The body scanners aren't dangerous. Their safety has been certified by the Food and Drug Administration, the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, and other scientific reviewers. You get more radiation from being at flying altitude for two minutes than you do from a scan.

Second, a "virtual strip search" is nothing like a real one. According to We Won't Fly, the fact that airport scans "are automated and mechanical in no way changes the fact that when a government agent looks beneath your clothing you are being strip searched." Are you kidding? It changes everything. In an airport scan, the only person who sees your naked body (it looks like this on the viewing screen) is an officer in a room away from where you're standing. He or she never sees your face and has no idea whose body is on the screen. Conversely, the officer who's standing in front of you, awaiting word that you've passed the scan, never sees you naked. This separation of your identity from your nude image is what protects your privacy. In a pat-down, there's no separation. The same officer who looks you in the eye slides his hand up your groin.

Did I mention the cost in time? A scanner can clear you in 10 seconds. A pat-down can take four minutes—or longer, if you accept TSA's offer of a private screening room. Imagine how long you'll have to wait at the airport Wednesday if half the people in front of you refuse to be scanned. TSA "won't have the manpower to reach into everyone's crotch," exults a WWF co-founder. The group urges followers to "jam TSA checkpoints by opting out" and "slowing down their security theater."

And for what? If Opt-Out Day grinds air travel to a halt and forces the government to withdraw the scanners, WWF's next goal is to abolish TSA. It claims the agency isn't "agile" enough to match al-Qaida. That's hilarious. Naked scanners are exactly the kind of agile response al-Qaida requires. Last year's underwear bomber showed that metal detectors can't handle non-metallic explosives concealed on the passenger. Hence the scanners.

Tyner proves the point. Read his account of how he plotted to evade the scanners:

I have been reading about the millimeter wave and backscatter x-ray machines … Not wanting to go through them, I had done my research on the TSA's website prior to traveling to see if [San Diego's airport] had them. From all indications, they did not. … After removing my shoes and making my way toward the metal detector … I was pulled out of line to go through the backscatter machine. When asked, I half-chuckled and said, "I don't think so."

In a follow-up post, Tyner writes, "I tried to avoid the … scanner machine by getting in the metal detector line. I was actually relieved when the person in front of me was pulled out of line."

Those words could just as easily have been written by the underwear bomber. Research the airports, look for the weak link, and pray that you don't have to go through a scanner that can see what's between your legs. So, yes, Mr. Tyner. Before you board my plane, I want the guys from TSA to look at your junk. And if you refuse, I want them to touch it.

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