The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is testing a new "enhanced patdown" technique at Boston's Logan Airport and Las Vegas' McCarran Airport. According to The Boston Herald, the new technique involves screeners sliding their hands over nearly every inch of a passenger's body and, unlike existing techniques that require screeners to use the backs of their hands on sensitive areas, screeners use their palms for the entire search. The new procedure, in general, is described as being more aggressive and invasive than the current one.
The TSA claims the new patdowns are necessary to maintain its "layers of security" approach. Spokeswoman Ann Davis told the Herald, "Patdowns are designed to address potentially dangerous items, like improvised explosive devices and their components, concealed on the body." The patdowns are conducted by screeners who are the same gender as the individual passenger, and passengers may request that the patdown be done in private. Patdowns would be used mainly when a passenger refuses a full-body scan or sets off a metal detector.
Still, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) calls the new procedures part of a "seemingly constant erosion of privacy."
Indeed, these patdowns are just the latest in a series of incursions into passenger privacy made by the TSA in the name of safety. The most egregious, perhaps until now, is the growing use of full-body scanners, or "millimeter wave" scanners, which produce fairly detailed images of passengers' naked bodies. Controversy over those machines was reignited earlier this month when the U.S. Marshals revealed they had stored some 30,000 images on a single machine in use at a Florida courthouse. The TSA, which operates separately from the Marshals, had always maintained the devices could not store images. However, the machines can store images and must be able to, per TSA policy. The capability is simply turned off when in use at airports.
For me, the whole issue of patdowns and full-body scanners comes down to a simple question: Why? And, more usefully, why now?
There's an easy throwaway answer to the first: Security, obviously. But why must the TSA constantly push the boundary between privacy and intrusion? The TSA's newest ideas—full-body scanners and these invasive patdowns—provide nothing more than a fool's choice between one form of privacy invasion and another. One passenger who received an enhanced patdown told the Herald, "If anybody ever groped me like that in real life, I would have punched them in their nose." Why does our country's security braintrust seem to funnel all its energy into processes that strip away the rights to privacy few Americans would willingly forfeit?
Further, why is the TSA rolling out this new program now? It's not as if enhanced patdowns were borne of some new technology, as is the case with full-body scanners, that required years of innovation and testing. Switching to enhanced patdowns simply requires a decision and an order, so why now? If airport security over the past nine years has been adequate without these more invasive body searches, why on earth are they suddenly necessary?
A conspiracist may offer that it's all security theater to begin with, and new policies are implemented simply to remind people—innocent civilians and potential criminals alike—that the TSA has its eye on things. Problem is, since the TSA rarely offers meaningful explanations for its policies, we're all left to guess. Why do we still take our shoes off? Why do I still have to throw out that cup of coffee before security? Why do I have to get groped by a screener like I'm some shady character? The TSA answers in platitudes—"layers of security" being one of them—and expects us all to take it.
Look, there's no such thing as an entirely secure air travel system. For every advancement in security there's a criminal mind somewhere thinking of new ways to take down planes. This is an uncomfortable truth, but it's important to remember when considering what is worth sacrificing in the pursuit of something that does not exist, which is the idea that flying can ever be 100 percent safe from crime. Unfortunately, we as consumers have increasingly little say in the matter, and can merely choose not to travel if we mean to defend our rights to privacy and decency.
Readers, what do you think about the new patdowns?