Touched by a Stranger

So, I’m going to be flying several times over the next couple of months. And, as I’m sure you’ve heard, the TSA has now implemented a variety of different new screening techniques. From that article:

“If a full-body scanning machine shows something strange or a passenger declines to go through the machine… an officer will perform a more personal search.  The examinations routinely involve the touching of breasts and genitals, invasive searches designed to find weapons and suspicious items.”

Folks are freaked about imaging technologies which seem to produce detailed NEKKID images of your body.  (A company called Flying Pasties sells an amusing line of…well, shields for your naughty bits. Kudos to their marketing savvy.)  There also is the issue that while the Feds claim they will delete all those images of you in the buff, apparently by “delete” they actually mean “stored centrally for an extended period of time.”

The full-body scanners also involve unspecified amounts of radiation, which several scientific and medical groups, not just the tin-foil hat types, have expressed concerns about.  So, opting out of the full body scan seems like it might be a good idea.  I’ve had a LOT of x-rays, CAT scans, and MRIs.  I’m not Evil Knievel, but I have managed to break a lot of bones, particularly in my head.  (Hey! Let’s not extrapolate!)
Anyway, on the advice of my doctor, I’m supposed to limit my exposure to radiation and microwave sources.  Ok, simple enough.  I opt out of the scan.

Except. When you give the technology a pass, you are now subject to a fairly intimate groin grope and feeling up.  A lot of folks have said that if you don’t want to have the scan and fly safely, or accept that some strangers will have to touch you, then you should just not fly.  The reality is, though, that for many of us we must fly semi-regularly as part of our jobs.  It’s not entirely my choice to fly; I can’t take a week of work off to drive to California and back for a business trip.  So, bring on the grope.

Except. I am a rape survivor.  And I know that if I am forced to have the kind of circle jerk that I’ve seen on video–where a bunch of TSA screeners surround me and one of them touches me in very private places–there is a real chance I’m going to freak out.  Traveling is always very stressful, in part because I have visual processing issues and epilepsy (see above; i.e, fractured head). Add onto that reliving a painful part of my past–someone touching me and I have no ability to say “I don’t consent“–I am not a happy traveler.

I’m getting ready for a business trip right now. I’m on the job hunt too, since I’ll be laid off next May.  I’m hoping to make some important connections with these meetings.

Am I worried that I won’t make a good impression on the bigwigs that I’m going to meet?  Am I spending time crunching data to make a good impression when I present my TPS reports?

I’m freaking out about just getting on the fucking plane.  That’s what I’m spending all my energy on. And that’s not right.

For my friend with a colostomy bag. For my sister with a partial breast reconstruction. For the oh-so-many other women who have been raped or molested.

There has to be a better way.

Edited 11/23/10 to add a footnote:


Bug_girl has a PhD in Entomology, and is a pointy-headed former academic living in Ohio. She is obsessed with insects, but otherwise perfectly normal. Really! If you want a daily stream of cool info about bugs, follow her Facebook page or find her on Twitter.

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  1. I fly a lot, mainly to see friends and family. In Cincinnati they have the scanners now, but not every lane has them. Just like they used to have the puffer machines (machine blows air on you and then analyzes the air), also not in every lane.

    One guy in front of me was able to avoid the puffer because he was late for a flight. That extra 30 seconds isn’t going to change your destiny that day and what if that guy was the terrorist? I had to go through instead.
    I feel there was so many passengers that had to go through an hour, but if you can opt out like that then is it truly random?

    I haven’t given too much thought about the FBS but the more I read about it the more I feel that the TSA are just a bunch of bullies that don’t make our nation’s travellers any safer.

    I’d not thought about rape victims, or others who have been subject to physical trauma.

    I’d like to see where the money trail for these 11,000 scanners leads and who’s pockets are being lined.

    Anyway, I’m done rambling. Not sure how I’ll handle this next week, but I think I might opt out just to be a pain. Maybe I’ll try to be aroused when they pat me down, or wear the nastiest pair of underwear I have, on the outside of my clothes.

  2. @T-Storm Funny you should say that because former head of Homeland Security (and one of the writers of the Patriot Act) Michael Chertoff has been a proponent of these scanners. He’s also the head of a company that deals in security. One of his clients is Rapiscan Systems. Rapiscan is one of two companies who make these machines.

  3. I may (or may not) have to fly in order to do grad school interviews this winter and spring, and I’m already freaking out about it. I do not want to go through the FBS for a variety of reasons: I consider it a privilege for someone to see my naked body, even anonymously; there is a small risk healthwise; I do not think that they actually improve security; and as a fat woman, I really don’t like that some strangers are going to see my naked body and have a chance to smirk at me. All of those things together, and I don’t want to go through them.

    But, like bug_girl, I’m a sexual assault survivor. My assault very specifically involved my perpetrator groping and probing at my crotch and breasts. And I would not feel ANY safer having the enhanced pat down in private; the thought makes me feel really sick.

    I think it’s obvious that the new security measures were enacted without feedback from the general public, without exploring effective alternatives (Israel’s got great security without the scanners), and without thinking about what qualifies as assault (“Go through the body scanners or we’ll do an enhanced pat down” actually reads as a threat to me, as opposed to giving me options).

  4. This is coming up, which may not be something you can do: However, there is lots of information there, as well as attempts to mobilize the community against these machines. Also, not all airports have the X-ray machines yet. If it’s humanly possible, you may want to see if you can book your flight through one of those.

    I agree this is a heinous invasion of privacy. Worse, it does not make us safer. The ironic thing is airports are not required to have this level of invasive techniques–they CAN opt out (

    You could really confuse them and wear a chastity belt–the really GOOD kind. Tell them you packed the key in your main luggage because you weren’t planning on taking it off until you reached your hotel, and that since the rape it makes you feel safer. Let them work that one out.

    On a less flip note–get a note from your doctor stating what you said here. If you can, also get a note from a psychologist explaining your other issues. Then show it to them. It won’t change things one whit, I’m sure, but it will give you legal grounds to fight back or join another lawsuit (several have been threatened, and I wouldn’t be surprised if one was already in progress or will be soon). It will also give jury and even media sympathy, that they jeopardized the health of an innocent, “mentally traumatized” young woman who is quite obviously NOT a terrorist.

    As things stand right now, your hands might be tied. So instead, plan a good defense for the aftermath and hit them for all they are worth.

    Best of luck to you.

  5. Yup, I’ve been following Rebecca’s tweets and vids on this because we will probably take our five year old to Oz soon to visit her ailing grandma (and the rest of the family too) and really, what are we going to do, take a boat?

    I had decided to go with the scan because I don’t really care about the nudity thing (we live in Austin, I’ve changed my kid in and out of swim wear at public pools, I don’t care who sees my fat ass, etc.). But then I read what the actual-real-life-not-apparently-crazy scientists had to say and that kinda got me worried.

    It’s entirely likely that my little white kid (and you know that matters, like it or not) will not get molested by a TSA official. I’m a rape survivor and I won’t like it but I can deal okay. And the increase in cancer risk is probably not very high.

    But…what if someone does twiddle her or me? What if she gets cancer ten years from now? Which mommy-guilt can I live with more?

    So far I’m leaning to the pat-down on the theory that potential emotional trauma is bad, but potential death is worse. Besides, I’ve heard you might get a pat down even if you go through the scanner.

    But I’ve also heard that some airports outside the US don’t even give you a choice…


  6. Hi Bug,

    Wish I could help you with your fears. My air security knowledge is pretty out of date, as I left the airline business in early 2006. That was long before these machines were built. I haven’t flown for well over a year now, so I haven’t even seen one yet. My experience recently has been limited to the magnetometer and the puffers.

    I can certainly understand your position, though I can’t feel it as you do. You have lots of company and many of those folks have had nothing happen to them even remotely as bad as you have. I think that in your case, the scanner may be the better of two bad options, given your very valid fear of being touched. Why? Because it avoids the issue of the hand search. Unless you plan on flying a lot (as T-storm does), I don’t think the radiation is that much of an issue. Of course, I’m not your doctor. My advice, FWIW, is to go through the scanner. You need to be able to focus entirely on the networking you need to find your next position. That’s the only way I see that you can do that.

    T-storm, you need to remember that there are a lot of politics surrounding the TSA and these machines. There are people out there that have a vested interest in making sure the TSA looks as bad as possible. (They seem to have a way of shooting themselves in the foot a lot too.) Making a scene or being a pain is a great way to get into a lot of trouble. Pissing off the TSA is a really good way to miss your flight and have some really unpleasant things happen to you. I don’t recommend it.

    Is this America? Not the one I grew up in. I’m hoping some much better solutions come along. I’m really irked by the current security system, but there’s things I can’t talk about because of CFR 49 part 15.

    Feel free to e-mail me and I’ll try to help where I can.

  7. I’m not a fan of security theater, but I wanted to point out that the article about storing images is talking about a scanner at a courthouse. TSA has said repeatedly that the storage function is disabled in airport machines.

  8. I’ve only been through these once (I think it was at LAX) and when you step out, the guard says “Female clear” or “Male clear.” That must make it awkward for transgendered folks.

    I have a certain amount to empathy for the TSA workers. Most of them are just regular folks that need a job. I’m sure most of them would rather not spend their days touching fat, ugly strangers.

  9. @Bug_girl: I think that the you tube concern is unnecessary. There is no way to know when those videos were taken, so there is no reason to think it increases someone’s stalking risk.

    I guess my biggest beef with the scanner debate in general, is that it glosses over the big questions we should be asking: are we actually reducing our risk from terrorism and, if we are, what are the costs (actual monetary costs, lost time, opportunity costs)? No one is trying to find that answer. I suspect the risk reduction is negligible and the costs exorbitant.

  10. My bigest worry is that this is just more fake security. It won’t help anything. It won’t prevent anything. I have regularly flown with a knife in my pocket since 9/11/01. Not because I was trying to sneak it on but because I am forgetful and have been carrying a pocket knife for 29 years. I just forget it is there until I am about to go through security. It is easy to get a knife through security and this wouldn’t in anyway affect the way I have gotten it through security many many times.

    When I was deployed to Kuwait in 2005 we flew commercial. There were three plane loads of us wearing cuu’s carrying M-16’s and 9mm on our hips.

    We went through the security screening. With our rifles and pistols.

    It was silly. Even without bullets (which we didn’t have) the rifle is still a hell of a club and the pistol is a pretty good blunt striking instrument. And we were all in the Navy. No civilians except for the flight crew and pilots.

    In October I ran my first nude race and plan to run more. I don’t mind being seen naked but I don’t like stupid.

    I plan to opt out of the scanner and when someone starts to feel me up I plan to moan like someone is giving me a handy.

    If everyone refuses to go through the scanner the TSA will have to abandon them. The TSA doesn’t have a budget large enough to hire the number of screeners neccessary to give us all a public non-mutual masturbation.

  11. @NewEnglandBob: You are a creep. You just called a rape victim a prude.

    It isn’t about prudery, it is about our rights to be able to travel without being unneccesarily harrased. If there was evidence that this was effective I would support it. The evidence isn’t there. This is expense and inefficient theatre.

  12. @NewEnglandBob: I don’t particularly care if the TSA people see my naughty bits. I go to clothing optional events, it’s just bodies.

    But the radiation and storage issues, as well as the invasive body searches are a real concern.

    And speaking up against invasive,ineffective actions by the government is what grownups do.

  13. Fuck looking for a better way. I say enough already. None of this was ever put up for a vote. None of it has even been demonstrated to be successful. These policies have been shoved down our throats by cowards for almost a decade now.

    It’s time for this to end. We need to start taking back our rights and privacy and stop trying protecting ourselves from every paranoid delusion a unqualified DHS bureaucrat can dream up. The whole point of terrorism is terror. Unless we stop this, they won. Mission accomplished.

    What the hell happened to “the land of the free and the home of the brave?” We’re really going to let people grope us on a regular basis just because we’re afraid of terrorist attacks that have ALL been thwarted by tough, smart American PASSENGERS (or fundamentalist incompetence?)

    Franklin pretty much covered this, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

  14. @Glow-Orb: are we actually reducing our risk from terrorism and, if we are, what are the costs (actual monetary costs, lost time, opportunity costs)?

    Not to mention dignity, freedom, and privacy.

  15. It sounds like a shitty choice to have to make. Was your doctor referring to airport scanners specifically? I guess what I would do is contact TSA with your problem, and get technical details on dosage and type of radiation used in the scans. Then forward that to your doctor with your questions. I’m afraid that’s all I’ve got. Good luck.

  16. @Glow-Orb:

    I guess my biggest beef with the scanner debate in general, is that it glosses over the big questions we should be asking: are we actually reducing our risk from terrorism and, if we are, what are the costs (actual monetary costs, lost time, opportunity costs)?

    As someone pointed out in another forum, Israel does not do things this way. They would be the experts on preventing terrorism–and the costs of not doing so.

  17. It’s interesting how many people are offering advice–I don’t actually need help deciding what to do. I just am not happy about the Hobson’s choice I have, and recognizing that it’s a crap choice for a lot of people besides me.

    In case anyone is curious, I will probably go through the scanner. My risk of brain cancer is already pretty high–but it’s a statistical risk. I’m also getting elevated radiation levels just sitting in the plane flying from place to place.

    The probability of my having a seizure or some other not pleasant event whilst being groped is a lot more likely.

  18. @NewEnglandBob: Is that your whole point: Stop being prudes and submit?

    I’m not a prude and not the least bit body shy, but that doesn’t mean the TSA or any other governmental body can violate my right to privacy. This is a legitimately frightening incursion into our rights as citizens. Most of us are not criminals, yet all of us are being treated as such. It’s ridiculous.

  19. Well, after reading all this I can say the US has totally dropped off my list of places I want to visit. Upon entering I have the choice of either being fondled or getting a nice dose of radiation. And I’m supposed to pay for the privilege? Yep, to enter the US I now have to pay a $14 fee for an Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). The proceeds of which go towards promoting more tourism to the US, as tourist numbers have been declining recently. Gee, I wonder why that is? Here is a revolutionary idea: instead of treating travellers like criminals or cattle, why don’t you make the process smooth, painless, and dignified.

  20. “So, opting out of the full body scan seems like it might be a good idea. I’ve had a LOT of x-rays, CAT scans, and MRIs.”

    You know that MRIs don’t use ionizing radiation and therefore do not cumulatively contribute to any associated increased risk of cancer, right?

    Just do the scanner option. The risk of cancer is INFINITESIMALLY, RIDICULOUSLY, ABSURDLY LOW. A backscatter X-ray scan will impart an ionizing radiation dose of 0.05 MICROsieverts, or 0.005 milliREM (5 microREM) to your body. This is the equivalent of being exposed to the ever-present muon, pion and gamma radiation from cosmic ray air showers whilst the plane is at altitude (30K ft.), for one or two minutes. Presumably your flight is going to last a couple hundred times that long. Therefore, the additional amount of ionizing radiation that a backscatter X-ray will expose you to is less than ONE PERCENT of the luxurious radiation bath you’re about to receive when your plane takes off. Eating a single banana will give you roughly double the dose of ionizing radiation that you will receive from this type of scanner due to its high potassium content (K-40 is radioactive).

    The concerns of the scientists raising objections about these scans are valid but are constrained only to debate about the proper method to calculate dosages to the person being scanned. The dose estimates are calculated in the current model by assuming the person being exposed will absorb the X-rays evenly throughout the body. However, the backscatter X-ray machines use very low energy X-ray photons which penetrate the body only to a very shallow depth. Even if you consider that the objections currently being raised about these scans are correct and the dose rate is being miscalculated, there still cannot POSSIBLY be more than an order of magnitude difference in dosages between calculation methods. If the dose is confined to the skin only, you are still getting a very, very minuscule dose.

    Do the scan.

    Anyway, if the particular scanner they have at your airport is a millimeter wave scanner that uses terahertz radiation and not an X-ray backscatter device, not only will you not be exposed to any radiation at all from that scanner, you also don’t have to worry about them ogling your naughty bits, because they can’t see shit with those – they’re useless.

    It’s so disappointing (judging from comments) how quickly people, even skeptics, lose their heads when it comes to the subject of radiation. Say the word radiation and rationality just goes right out the window.

  21. begin rant…

    I’ve been through these airport scanners three or four times now… I went through one of the very first ones in Amsterdam some time ago.

    Personally, I don’t mind going through the scanners. It doesn’t bother me. If some airport security guy enjoys looking at my naked picture, whatever. I’m young and hot now… it’s only a matter of time before I’m old and fat and wrinkly. From what I can tell, though, the actual pictures that are scanned are pretty obscure. They kind of look like backscatter images of crystals I take in lab… vague outlines of what’s there.

    However, if there is truly a risk for increased skin cancer that sucks. I come from a family of skin cancer survivors and although I am a geologist and work outside I am meticulous about sunscreen + protective clothing. I like to travel, though, so through the scanner I go.

    I am not okay with anyone groping me in public. Gross. So I choose the cancer over the groping.

    What I don’t like about these new screening policies is how they are FORCED upon people. And I don’t feel safer.

    Airplane policies just keep getting worse…

    There was a shoe bomber, so now we have to take off our shoes.

    Someone made a bomb out of liquids, so now we can only carry small amounts of liquid… except baby formula or medication.

    Someone set their underpants on fire trying to blow up a plane and so now we have naked scanners.

    Just how much further can we go?

    The problem is, no matter what we do the technology of the terrorists will always be a step ahead of us. Take, for instance, the recent attempted printer bombings. Those were essentially undetectable… even when the security people knew exactly what they were looking for. And it took a warning from Saudi Arabia for them to know about the printer bombs!

    A creative, determined terrorist will be able to take out a plane, no matter how sophisticated our scanning becomes.

    Better, in my opinion, to take all the money spent on fancy new scanners and invest in some better intel/relations in the Middle East.

    /end rant

  22. I cannot believe how many folks seem to think that I”m worried about TSA seeing my boobs.

    If I wasn’t in the middle of a job search, I’d post a photo of them right now to prove that’s not the issue.

    (and if that offer doesn’t boost my job hunting networking, I don’t know what will! ;)

  23. I first said this on September 14th 2001, and I stand by it. At some point someone is going to hijack an airplane with kung fu and from that point on we’re all gonna hafta fly in fucking straitjackets.

  24. Sorry to hear about being laid off, and kudos to having the strength to speak out about being a rape survivor. — That said — my first thought as I read a story in today’s Boston Herald —

    Kids 12 and under – won’t be subjected to the invasive pat down.
    great: If I’m a sleeper terrorist family, I’ll load the bomb in my kid . — And —
    what about the 16 year old rape, or sexual molestation victim? — Can they opt out ?

    How about a compromise, have the TSA agent submit to you a fully verifiable CORI report.

  25. After a little more research on the link I posted earlier, I found an NPR story that says the images on that video are NOT from the new canners. Instead, they are much more pixelated and less embarrassing. I stand corrected. Thanks for the new info. Shulleigh

  26. I was fairly sure that I did not want to know what a “menstrual keeper” was. But it turns out that it’s (moderately) less gross than I was expecting! I thought it was going to be some kind of body fluid-related fetishwear. (and yes, that does actually exist, don’t ask) Ewwww.

  27. @Magnus H.:

    You know that MRIs don’t use ionizing radiation and therefore do not cumulatively contribute to any associated increased risk of cancer, right?

    No, for those it’s the contrasting agents you need to worry about.

  28. i’m sorry, i can’t possibly read through all these comment to see if someone has already pointed this out… but i work in radiation safety for a living and i just want to point out a MAJOR logic flaw that you made because as a skeptic and a professional in radiation safety i feel a duty to point this out. The radiation dose from a backscatter machine (not milli-meter wave which is non-ionizing and there’s been no credible scientific evidence to date that shows there that should be a ‘life time limit” to non-ionizing radiation) gives you a dose estimated of .005-.009 mrem. THe dose you get on a 6 hour flight is about 2 mrem. if you’re *really* that concerned about minute amounts of radiation, you should not be flying at all. to put these numbers in perspective, this dose calculator produced by the American Nuclear Society will give you some numbers of doses you receive from every day activities and medical procedures.
    please consider consulting it. I’m a little disappointed to see radiation fear mongering linked on a skeptics website that i really admire. My sources for dose estimates come from well regarded sources in the field of radiation science like the health physics society. your link is from Business World. i’m more inclined to specialty science groups that represent the majority of radiation safety professionals in this country than business world in this case. just like i’d be more inclined to trust business world on 3rd quarter projections of profit for a major company than i would the health physics society.
    In terms of what your doctor told you about avoiding ionizing AND non-ionizing scans… this is a little nonsensical. Medical doctors are incredibly smart people at diagnosing and treating disease but few of them receive very much radiation safety education. Limiting CT scans and x-rays unless they are absolutely necessary (the over use of CT and potential risk it is causing the public is actually a big issue right now in the medical physics profession), sure, but otherwise this doesn’t make much sense.
    I completely sympathize with the privacy concerns of people. I do not understand them as well myself but that does not stop me from respecting that people deserve their right to privacy. with that said my argument here is solely with your treatment of hte subject of radiation and not with your privacy concerns raised. i’m not trying to be difficult or mean, just that this is my professional life and it bothers me to see the way people treat the subject of radiation in the media, particularly from a site that is supposed to stand for reason and critical thinking.

  29. Ugh, Bug Girl I’m so sorry to hear of your troubles. The idea of a rape survivor having to go through this … I can’t even imagine.

    The only encouraging thing I can see about this is it seems to have actually generated some backlash. Who knows, maybe this overstep will finally create an opportunity for your country to return to sanity with its airport security.

  30. @intimeoflilacs: I scooped you dude(ette?). ;0)

    Also, just because, I would like to link to bionerd23’s videos on all things radioactive. She is the awesomest science girl youtuber I know. Watch her vids! In one video she actually boils her pee to extract radioactive technetium-99. She’s amazing.

  31. @Magnus H.: ahh see i didn’t quite have the time to read them all. i tried to skim. i should have just done a page search for mrem. all the articles that i’ve read claim ingthat “scientists” think it’s dangerous never give numbers…

  32. @pciszek: Israel has your ass profiled, vetted and smelled before you get to the airport.

    @intimeoflilacs: That. I’m involved in a cancer support forum and the totally irrational fear of radiation that is magnitudes less than you get from flying is a frequent issue for folk there. And even people who’ve ingested 100-400mc of I-131 don’t seem to appreciate how insignificant almost everything else is after that.

  33. @James Fox: yeah it’s a tough subject to deal with, it’s really culturally ingrained. one of my fav facts to share is that you get a higher dose from living near a coal plant than a nuclear plant. we desperately need people who are will to reach out to the public and explain this stuff.

  34. I am a transexual man. Being “caught” by TSA as a person of transexual past could literally mean my death. Transgender people have the highest rate of hate-crime and the highest rate as murder victims in the USA.

    I don’t fly. And I won’t at any point in the foreseeable future. I haven’t for several years due to the invasive screening I had in 2004 that left me with nightmares.

  35. @NewEnglandBob: Yeah, Bob, that shit’s fucked up. Bug girl raises many good points… and you dismiss it as prudery. I mean, Jesus fuck, dude.

    I don’t know much about the science involved in backscatter devices, or their impact on cancer development. But the fact the option for those who choose against them would be considered sexual assault if it happened on the street… that’s messed up.

  36. I read somewhere (can’t quite remember where) that the best way to implement security at airports is to simply randomise the checks. Some people get a simple pat down, some go through this new scanner, some go through this, some go through that, etc.

    In that case, nobody knows what sort of security they’re going to experience, whilst in the current way of doing things, they know exactly what they’re going to get, and therefore know exactly what they can get away with.

  37. I have been pat down in the security check a few times, it only takes 20 seconds, the policewoman (because there the agent is of your same sex), doesn’t fondle you, it is so quick and I have never felt groped or bad about it. I was last april in Marrakech and all the women were pat down at the security point.
    It is difficult to feel groped when it only takes 20 seconds and the policewoman is bored and doesn’t like at all.

  38. I’m not a doctor but I play on on the internet…..

    Thanks everyone for telling me I’m a fool to listen to my doctor, who has actually seen my (rather extensive) medical records. No, she’s not infallible. But she was fairly clear about risks, and limiting them.

    The reality is we simply don’t know what the long term effects of the machines are. That’s true of a lot of things in science, and I’m fine with that.
    I already said earlier in the comments that I plan to go through the machine, since a statistical probability means…I have a good chance I won’t have a problem at all. And I already said that I know about radiation in airplanes in comments above as well.

    The reality is that real people have to make these real choices, and that they are causing a lot of stress and heartbreak. That what this post is about.

    For example, the issue of transgendered folk has come up a couple of times–they are probably going to suffer the most in this system. It’s a gauntlet of revelation they will have to submit to.

    Go right ahead and nitpick the science to your heart’s content. Please do, in fact, submit links for the Quickies that analyze the risks/explain the science of backscatter. That is good information, and it is part of the mission of Skepchick to disseminate it.

    But I swear if one more person tells me to “get over” having a strange person touch me, I’m going to smack someone. >:|

  39. The TSA does some random searches, as someone above suggested. Still someone with graphic design skill can beat that system.

    What the TSA needs to do is work on preventing terrorists from getting to the airport in the first place. Once they’re there, it’s almost too late.

    When I worked at TSA, I hated passenger screening, because I was mostly bothering people who had no intention of hurting people. I’m so glad I left, and I’m sad to see things getting worse.

    I hope your flights and interviews go well. Hopefully stories like yours will change the policy.

  40. How long until a terrorist inserts plastic explosives in a body cavity? Will be be required to submit to body cavity searches then?

    I’ve started changing my flying patterns due to these new “security” techniques. Are we going to have to bail out the airlines (again) when people reduce their flying to avoid unpleasant and not so safe invasions of their privacy?

  41. @bug_girl: I would like to reiterate my point that i am, not, i repeat NOT, attacking your argument that you made in the face of privacy. You should never be forced to let people touch you in a way that makes you uncomfortable and no one should be subjected to embarrassment over body issues that they deem personal. But what you have chosen to say about radiation falls in the face of all real science and reason on the issue. The fact s that if you consider a linear no-threshold model of radiation dose, yes even the slightest increase in dose from a backscatter machine could in theory raise your risk of cancer (though it should be noted that this model, while generally accepted, has never been studied at levels of radiation exposure this low as they are so well below background there is essentially no practical way to study it). But so would going to one of your job interviews at a place where there is a higher natural background, say denver where i live. and yet i have a feeling you haven’t considered turning down interviews in cities with higher natural background radiation because of the increased cancer risk. but from the way you’re looking at it, going to on of these cities would actually increase your cancer risk more, strictly speaking from a radiation dose standpoint. Instead of looking at what we’ve been trying to point out to you about the radiation risks, so that you can make more informed decisions about your relative increased risks for cancers you have chosen to react emotionally and only hone in on the one point i said about what your doctor said being a little bit nonsensical(and yes in my professional opinion it is, as i said there is no evidence of a lifetime dose limit for non-ionizing radiation). I point this out not to claim that you or your doctor is a fool but rather to try to inform you of the realties here. Most people take for granted that radiation science and safety is in fact its own science and that just because a doctor might say something in relation to radiation expsoure risk, it doesn’t mean that he/she has ever had much formal education on the subject. You go to a doctor because despite the fact that you are a scientist, you trust someone who is an expert in the field of medicine to treat and diagnose your disease. I’m only telling you what i know as an expert in *my* field. About a year ago i was hounded by my medical doctor until i gave in and started taking a multivitamin and then the skepchicks posted an entire podcast devoted to saying that multivitamins were about as effective as candy… but i don’t think they were telling me that me or my doctor is a fool.

    I’ve made the comments that i’ve made because people trust skeptics blogs to discuss science and link things that are based in solid fact and reason, and not emotionally charged non-science. And yet the way thatyou have represented radiation and the link you chose do none of this. I do not think you are stupid for this. this is a LOT of misinformation out there about radiation, much like there is/was a lot of misinformation out there about vaccines. And yet with the help of a critically thinking group of people, the real facts have been brought to light for the public. I know it is difficult, when you have written an article on a subject that you were already emotionally connected to and you get criticized in any way. I am making my comments because i feel that as a writer on a prominent and trusted skeptics blog, you have the duty not to spread misinformation and pseudo-science and rather treat subjects like this to critical thinking and reason. I hope that you can take some time to read the link that i posted to give you an idea of some relative risks of radiation exposure and look over the article Magnus H linked that is written by major players in the field of radiation science and safety. Again i am not attacking your stance on privacy issues here, the main point is still solid. but i do feel that as a professional and skeptic i have the responsibility to point out when misinformation and bad science are being spread. Please think about my comments as a skeptical critique and not an attack on you personally or on your right to privacy.

  42. This has just gone too far. I am so sick of all this showy security that doesn’t actually make us safer. I know it’s not an option for everyone, but I personally intend to do everything in my power to avoid flying. I’m going to boycott all air travel until or unless they become more reasonable.

    This isn’t about being a prude. I’m the least prudish person I’ve ever known. I’m even a nudist in theory (although rarely in practice except when I’m alone). But when it comes down to it, it’s my body and my right to decide who sees it. Just because I’m comfortable with 1, 10, or 1000 people seeing it doesn’t mean that I want any random TSA agent to see it. Now, of course I do have a choice, because I can choose not to fly. And that’s the choice I’ll make as often as I can.

    If these scanners/gropes actually made us safer, then maybe I would reconsider. But that’s just not the case.

  43. @intimeoflilacs

    Hello? *knocks on screen*
    Are you even reading what I’m writing here?

    I have not said anything specific about the safety of these devices; I have said that there are questions about them, and a lot of unknowns.

    I am “emotional” about being told to man up and let strangers grope me.

    I am not emotional about quibbles with the way in which I phrased certain statements of fact–like what I was told, by my doctor. You’ve made a lot of assumptions about my knowledge of background radiation, and they are incorrect. Remember, I’ve been writing for several years about rumors of (bogus) cell phone effects on bees.

    This post is about privacy and being forced to make uncomfortable decisions.

    If you want to submit a guest post about radiation, please be my guest! I welcome it!
    And I’ve said that before, several times, in the comments here.
    But that’s not what I’m talking about in this post.

  44. @James Fox:

    Israel has your ass profiled, vetted and smelled before you get to the airport.

    Maybe that would be preferable to groping 3-year-old children. And more effective, but TSA doesn’t seem to be concerned about that.

  45. *hug bug_girl*

    I just went through a pat down in Germany after I got flagged going through the regular metal detector (underwire bra + forgotten coins in pocket). It wasn’t too bad but it was certainly not what I would have chosen if I could have skipped it altogether.

    I really do think that we’re going overboard with the technology for technology’s sake and it really doesn’t add anything to my or others security. I actually end up feeling angrier and more murderous AFTER having gone through this than I would if I could skip most of it (or even just 1 or 2 steps in the US). Having just flown recently I couldn’t tell you how much better I felt mentally when I didn’t have to take off my shoes. Seriously, everything else was the same I was just able to leave my shoes on. It was a 50% increase in my positive emotions when I didn’t have to do this in Europe. They know that it doesn’t help security so what is the point of it besides making me feel just a little more dehumanized?

  46. @bug_girl: NO. You said “The full-body scanners also involve unspecified amounts of radiation,…” which is just straight out UNTRUE. **knocks on your screen** are you reading what *i’m* saying?? what you have said about radiation is not true and you have furnished a link that shows nothing that is actually accepted by anyone who actually studies this for a living. I KNOW that that is not your point, but by linking and making that statement you are perpetuating myths about radiation that i am trying desperately to fight. It would be irresponsible for a skeptic to post on a well respected blog and not see how this sort of haphazard look at radiation, whether or not it is the main point of the article, could be harmful to the protection of science and reason. People respect the things that skepchicks say.
    The fact of the matter is that if this issue ever goes to court, and i think that will and probably should, even attempting to use unnecessary radiation dose as one of the many reasons that this technology should be avoided (or as a reason why people might be subject to unreasonable groping) could very well mar the case as it would be very, very easily disproven. By making statements that inflict poor science you weaken your case.
    I understand what you are saying, the point of your article is not about the radiation, but you do state that you do consider it a legitimate reason to opt out of the scan, and link an article that makes claims with no numbers or facts to back them up about the supposed dangers of radiation dose from these machines. you are missing what i’m saying, which is that despite your main point, it is irresponsible of you to promote poor science.
    remember, it wasn’t that long ago that there were a lot of non “tin-foil hat types” that felt that there was validity to the concerns of vaccines causing autism and other ill health effects.

  47. “I am “emotional” about being told to man up and let strangers grope me.”
    Shit, I express my self badly. I know that you have PTS, and let strangers touch you is triggering.
    What I was trying to explain, is that is not “groping”, the agent is a woman, she doesn’t take any pleasure from this, and it only takes 20 seconds. It is like a medical visit, the agent is professional and normally bored. And she is always a woman.
    I never thought about the pat downs of trans people. This is a complicated problem.

  48. From what I’ve seen, I don’t see a real cause for concern over privacy. From what I’ve seen, the pictures rendered are of generic human forms. I find it hard to believe that soemone could look at these pictures and know who it was. You’d be able to get gender correct, but that’s about it.

    What I’d like to see, to find out if there is truly a cause for concern over privacy is an experiment where FBSs are performed on volunteers, then those scans are shown another group. The second group is also shown real full body images (clothed) of the participants and must try to match the scans with the persons. Also, to increase the similarities to real world events, I’d like to have some people included as possible matches to body scans which did not actually get scanned.

    If the second group can match the image with the person a signifigant percentage of the time, then I would agree, yes, there is cause for concern.

    As far as radiation goes, I don’t know enough to make an informed opinion about the safety of it.

  49. @battlestarlet: am i the only one who has a problem with part of the way this product is being marketed? in the owner’s 4th of july video he says the following:

    …so you don’t have to worry about somebody seeing your wife, your girlfriend, your family, or even yourself, in naked imagery.

    because, men, it’s your job to protect the women you own from the gaze of other men. what is this, saudi arabia?


  50. “This post is about privacy and being forced to make uncomfortable decisions.”
    First, on privacy…
    I’m extremely uncomfortable with the notion that people are recording or-worse yet announcing (e.g. ‘female clear’) perceived sex as an identifier. It’s hard for transsexuals, intersex individuals, and anyone who just doesn’t want the baggage. But that goes for when they started recording gender on boarding passes, not just the pat-down issue.
    The pat-down is obviously more bothersome though. I wouldn’t tell anyone to just get over their responses to unwanted physical contact of any kind; particularly when it’s very obvious how it could be triggering.
    So I think I’m on the same page as you here.

    On making uncomfortable decisions… Given the levels of radiation involved compared with the levels involved in flying… I can’t wrap my brain around *why* there is any discomfort in this choice. Unless you are also uncomfortable with almost every decision you make?

    I am comfortable eating a banana, even though it increases my radiation exposure and perhaps my risk of cancer. I know eating browned food increases my risk (by “know” I mean “I’ve read reasonable scientific studies on this topic and there is a measurable effect”). I know spending time in the sunlight increases my risk. I know living near three mile island might increase my risk. I know working in a medical center increases my risk a lot more. I know running experiments with tritium might increase my risk. I just never care about any of those things very much. Ok, when I was pregnant I avoided the tritium, but I also knew that there would be a perfectly reasonable way of doing it if it *had* to get done.
    I’m not scoffing at *the discomfort* anyone else might feel about making these types of decisions, but if skepticism means anything we have to ask whether it’s coming solely from fear- cancer is very scary.
    My parents, despite being two pack a day smokers, don’t want me dying my hair (because there might have been some evidence early on that some hair dyes might be associated with cancer and people in my family who died their hair got pancreatic cancer). I love my parents. They also happen to be extremely smart in general. It’s still abundantly obvious they are not even the slightest bit rational on this front.
    Am I sympathetic that my parents, who just love me and want the best for me, might feel stress or heartbreak if I dyed my hair? Yes. Do I think that alone is a good enough reason not to do it? No, not really.

    “If these scanners/gropes actually made us safer, then maybe I would reconsider. But that’s just not the case.”
    I personally suspect the security effects are entirely negligible. It’s even possible that by discouraging casual fliers from flying we’ll drive down the cost of tickets and increase the odds a terrorist can afford a ticket- or some other equally convoluted fashion through which these policies will make us less safe. But I strongly suspect the most likely scenario is that your odds of dying in a terrorist attack go down by more than your cancer rates go up. Not that either should matter, compared to the menacing banana.

    “I have not said anything specific about the safety of these devices; I have said that there are questions about them, and a lot of unknowns.”
    I have not said anything specific about the safety of these fruits; I have said that there are questions about them, and a lot of unknowns.

  51. One thing that I noticed today when reading Dave Barry’s NPR interview about his TSA pat-down was that it came AFTER he was already scanned. Apparently, he had a “blurred groin”, so he was taken aside for a more detailed ‘inspection’. So, even if you opt for the scanner, you can still end up giving up 2nd base to a government employee?

    At this point, why don’t we include the scanners, the pat-downs and maybe have all travelers wear just their underwear and pass through a gauntlet of NFL referees who can throw a flag, confer and call up instant replay as necessary.

    Surely, then we won’t miss anything dangerous!

  52. We could exempt people who have gone through detailed background checks and have a note that says it’s okay – like an “opt in” to something like Israel’s profiling/butt sniffing policy.

  53. Rape survivor? Check. I’ve had the worst of the PTSD under control for more than a decade now, but I still have to squash a bit of anxiety just to allow a stranger to hug me. I’m pretty sure I’d wig-the-fuck-out if that hug included a probing hand to the crotch.

    I also have Fibromyalgia. There are points on my body that fire up an amazing amount of pain in response to the slightest pressure. I educate new lovers with brightly-colored disc bandages or stickers. Somehow I doubt the airport authorities will comply with the sticker game.

    So… okay. I’ll just dodge the freak-out and the pain by sucking in my lumpy bits and walking through the scanner. I’m generally not shy with my body, I don’t travel often, and I’m not on a first-name basis with the x-ray/MRI tech at the local clinic, so there shouldn’t be an issue.

    But wait! There’s more!

    I have a genital piercing (a vertical clitoral-hood bar to be specific), and the horror stories have already begun circulating among the metallically-infused about pat-downs, hassles, and fucking strip-searches following these scans. Is it possible these stories are just stories? Urban legends for the new era? Sure. Does it matter to the lizard-brain nested in my head? Absofuckinglutely not.

    Also, no – I can’t just take it out. It’s a slippery area that heals incredibly quickly; that sucker’s been coated in heavy-bond Loctite. Removing it requires pliers and, thanks to my anatomy, getting it back in requires a piercing threader.

    I’m not flying again until April but my nervous system is already on yellow-alert. I’m launching out of DIA, which installed the damn scanners earlier this year. Just think! I could have the privilege of being exposed, hurt, triggered, and violated all in one day! All for a four-day stay in fucking Detroit! Yay! *sobs*

    Enough is enough.

    (In related news, I recently mentioned my scanner-nightmare scenario fears to my Mom. In a perfectly presented deadpan she responded, “You should probably leave for the airport a few hours early…” I love my family. *laughs*)

  54. @weofui:

    Also, no – I can’t just take it out. It’s a slippery area that heals incredibly quickly; that sucker’s been coated in heavy-bond Loctite.


    It took me a moment to realize that you were referring to the junction of two parts of the piercing.

    At least, I hope that’s what was meant.

  55. @battlestarlet:

    There’s also the option of wearing flying pasties.

    Since having a “blurred groin” gets you singled out for the the pat-down, and having the pat-down find something suspicious in the blurred area probably gets you even more unwanted attention, I suspect these would make things even worse.

  56. @pciszek:
    … I suspect these would make things even worse.

    I think it depends on whether you want to go for the “moaning in extasy” scenario to freak the TSA-folk out or not.

  57. @Blotzphoto: re: hijacking w/Kung Fu – I don’t think so. Hijacking is done. It is no longer a viable crime. The point of hijacking is: do something, or we hurt/kill these people.

    Sept. 11 taught us that the people are going to get killed anyway. No amount of reassurance from the hijackers will convince the passengers & crew that they have a chance to live through a hijacking.

    Preventing hijacking is a waste of time.

    So, TSA should be trying to prevent people from damaging planes while they are in the air. The current procedures do not do a very good job of that.

  58. @DataJack:

    Direct death and damage are not the only goals of terrorism. Making people afraid and panicked, especially to the point of giving up their rights, is also a major goal. That’s why the underwear bomber and the NYC guy weren’t complete failures. They had some success in that they reminded us of the previous successful attempts at terrorism.

  59. I’ve got no problem with the scanners. Been scanned, wasn’t a big deal for me or the security folks.
    What I don’t understand is how they make travel safer. That’s where my confusion sets in.

  60. The issue really isn’t about the safety coming from the scans themselves. The studies suggest it may be iffy, but that’s not the concern.
    Also, to note, that this is not like the “Vaccines Killed My Child’s Soul, So Now They Have The Autism” nonsense. Firstly: they don’t, we know they don’t, the studies have pretty conclusively said they don’t, stop it. Secondly, who are you to determine that a child on the spectrum is dead inside? But that is something else.
    The problem is the entire situation: airport security rarely worked before, and so we travelers have a choice to be violated in one of two ways, neither of which can properly enforce safety in the air. That protection comes from intelligence and law enforcement, all on the ground, which is why the Israeli model is brought up.
    One choice is to have strangers take naked photos of you. Yes, they can be blurry, and yes, they do look odd, and no, those aren’t legitimate validations to have get pictures that can and will and do make people feel highly violated. The second option, instead of only being emotionally violated, is to be emotionally and physically violated. To be manhandled and be in a situation to have a stranger stick their hands and face down your pants.
    For the terrible, awful, very very naughty people, security can be negotiated around. For the rest of us, the issue is that we have a choice of being made a victim, out of choicelessness.

    Also, the puff chemical detector seems to be much more effective in finding things that can be dangerous and infinitely less invasive, so there’s that.

  61. I’m getting on a plane tomorrow morning to fly to Springfield for SkeptiCon. Even though I know I won’t have to choose between naked scanners or groping at either my departure or arrival sites, as a 2 time rape survivor I have spent the entire afternoon freaking the fuck out over the possibility of such invasive searches.

    I could give a shit less about the “naked scanners” because thanks to my other blog Boobcast (.net) my boobs are all over the internet anyway. And if someone wants to make fun of my fat ass, let them.

    My big problem is that even though it’s been 15 years since the rapes, I still have PTS. I’ve been drinking beer since noon to take the edge off. This entire discussion including the research I did for the article I wrote for Fledgeling Skeptic (.com) that goes live tomorrow morning, is acting as a trigger. If I’m this freaked out now, what would i be like if i REALLY had to be patted down? I can’t be the only one out here that feels this way.

  62. @intimeoflilacs (and other physics types)

    I’ve said this a couple of times in the comments, but I would very much welcome a guest post on the science of the scanners we are discussing! I think it would be really helpful.
    I suspect if we all sat down over a beer, we could clear this up in about 5 minutes. Communicating online is frustrating.

    Part of the issue, I think, is that I am trying to deal with two issues in the comments–
    1. folks who object to my statements about why I might not want to get in the scanner, and
    2. folks who are flat out not understanding why a rape survivor (or a variety of other people) might not want strangers touching her in intimate places.
    ( #2–YOU are the people I’m annoyed with.)

    Physics is very poorly understood by the public. I freely admit that I am good at Newtonian physics, but particle physics makes my head hurt. My reasoning for not wanting to go in the scanner is probably more informed than average. And, clearly, you still think I got it wrong.
    (Please note that I have said that I will choose to be scanned rather than groped, because the statistical risk, whatever it is, is tiny)

    My understanding–from the Guardian and a couple other news sources that are fairly reliable–is that lots of the details of these devices are still classified. That’s why I’m leery of hopping in one, plus the reliance on the authority of my doctor.

    I would love to have better info.

  63. @pciszek: Actually, according to the story, they told her to take off the insulin pump before going through security. I have no idea if this is trivial or a major surgical intervention or somewhere in between. The headline on the radio station’s web page says the TSA told her to leave her insulin pump at home, but *nothing* in the story itself supports that claim. WTF?

    When “making shit up” becomes an accepted part of public discourse, then the terrorists have won.

    On a completely unrelated front, I just watched an episode of Psychic Kids (speaking of “making shit up”.) One of the kids was being taught to read auras by running her hands about 3-4 inches away around people’s bodies. On the plus side, maybe if the TSA hired psychic screeners, they could dispense with the intrusive groping without any loss of effectiveness?

    Bug_girl, I really hope you can make your trip with your health. dignity and physical and mental integrity intact, and that you find a good job.

  64. i dint have the time to go through the conversations and i have no idea what the security systems in the US are but don’t you people have a separate womens checking counter. many countries have that. getting a body check done by a women will sort half the issues. Ofcourse there still will be groping but” hopefully” not in a sexual way. something better than nothing right?

  65. Bug_girl, I’m sorry you have to go through all this;
    I second Buzz Parsec: ” I really hope you can make your trip with your health. dignity and physical and mental integrity intact, and that you find a good job.”
    And I would also like to thank you for the courage of bringing this issue up, which obviously wasn’t easy.
    The issue is heating up, see this:

  66. @Kimbo Jones: Because it would be creepier if a man would do the pat down. (Yes very heteronormative of me)
    And there have been making pat downs in the airports (at least in Europe), for a long, long time. Normally you only have to pass the metal detector but they choose people for the pat downs. I have dark skin, and the security check always choose me for the ramdon patdown. In Marrakech they pat down all the people, but in Prague they only pat down on me, in Heathrow the same. I am beginning to think that I have a terrorist face or something.

  67. @Hel, I’ve been patted down on numerous occasions at the airport. I have long hair now, but it happened when I had short hair too. I’m caucasian and not specifically odd-looking, but I’m male and between 20 and 40, travelling alone, like most terrorists in the past were I suppose.

    When I went to TAM2 in 2004, security at the airport was still a lot more agressive. ANYONE who wanted to fly to the US had to pass through a pat-down to get into the “US-bound terminal” after having already been through normal security earlier. They even inspected every piece of carry-on luggage.

  68. @Hel
    Your comments about the pat-downs being quick and “not too bad” are based on outdated information. You’ve said that you were subjected to one last April, and outside of the US. However, the TSA here in the US has recently instituted more “aggressive” pat-down procedures that involve firmer grasping of the limbs and abdomen, and probing of the genital and breast areas. See: among others.

    I agree with the points others have made about the issues with trans-people and such, but I also wanted to point out that your repeated stating of how non-invasive the pat-downs are is no longer accurate.

  69. I’d like to take this opportunity to make a slightly snarky comment regarding the nature of PTS.

    PTS “triggers” are sights, sounds, smells, sensations, and emotions that are similar to the sights, sounds, smells, sensations, and emotions that were experienced by an individual during the course of a traumatic event. PTS is directly related to the chemical combinations created by sensory input – these chemical combinations are marked by the brain as “danger signals” which activate the fight or flight response.

    Our gangly species would have died out long ago if the chemical signals related to the sensation of being on fire (or other danger signals) allowed time for executive function processing. Responses of “Gee… I wonder what the fire’s intention is?” do far less in regards to our survival than responses of “AGGGHHH!! I’M ON FIRE!!! PUTMEOUTPUTMEOUTPUTMEOUT!!!”.

    For most people, the sound of a rotary telephone hitting the floor carries a benign chemical signal. Their past experiences haven’t suggested that telephone dropping is anything more dangerous than the dropping of any other blunt, relatively lightweight object. MY past experiences, however, suggest that the sound of a telephone dropping ultimately leads to horrible, life-threatening things. PTS insures that I respond to the clang of a rotary phone the same way someone else might respond to an unexpected explosion in their immediate vicinity.

    In short, PTS doesn’t give a rats-ass whether the sensation of a hand to the crotch (in the absence of enthusiastic consent) is initiated by a deranged rapist or a professional security guard. The sensation has absolutely squat to do with the initiator’s gender, race, demeanor, or intention. The sensation is completely divorced from whether or not the initiator is getting their jollies off groping you or bored out of their minds. The sensation equates to “I’M ON FIRE!” and that lumpy organ we keep in our skulls doesn’t much concern itself with why.

    If given the choice between being set on fire for a brief moment, by a professional, in a controlled environment -or- being set on fire for an extended period of time, by a lunatic, in a ghetto alley I prefer the first option. But you know what’s even more preferable? Not being set on fire at all. Just sayin’.

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