According to the Transportation Security Administration, Americans have no problem with the new airport screening procedures. So they should stop complaining.
That self-contradictory reassurance, which would be unnecessary if it were true, seemed slightly more plausible after chaos failed to ensue from protests by Thanksgiving travelers who refused to walk through the TSA’s full-body scanners last week. But there are reasons to question the TSA’s portrait of placid passengers happily baring all for the sake of homeland security.
First of all, the TSA’s numbers are fishy. It typically compares the number of passengers who opted for a pat-down instead of a full-body scan to the total number of travelers passing through the same airport that day — for example, “39 total AIT (advanced imaging technology) opt-outs ... out of 47,000 fliers” at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on the day before Thanksgiving or “113 AIT opt-outs across LAX’s eight terminals, which is less than 1 percent of the approximately 50,000 travelers screened.”
But to opt out, you have to be presented with a choice between revealing yourself to the TSA and letting an agent feel you up, and it seems most travelers never got that choice. Fewer than 400 of a planned 1,000 machines have been installed at airports so far, and they are used sporadically. Even when they’re used, passengers do not necessarily know what they are walking through or that they have a right to request a pat-down, instead.
“For most travelers through Newark Liberty International Airport,” the Newark Star-Ledger reports, “the choice between a full-body scan and an aggressive pat-down was strictly academic. The half-dozen scanners now operational at Newark Liberty were largely idle during Opt Out Day — and for much of the Thanksgiving holiday before and afterward — depriving passengers of the opportunity to opt out even if they had wanted to.”
CBS News reports that at Reagan National Airport “only occasionally were passengers routed to body scanners. The vast majority went through metal detectors only.” Furthermore, the machines “were not labeled as ‘body scanners,’ nor were there any images posted by or on them showing what they do. Several seasoned travelers told us they didn’t realize they were in a body scanner until they were asked to raise their arms.” In any case, “no opt-out choices were presented.” Yet “your consent is presumed if you walk into the machine without objecting.”
In these circumstances, the TSA’s claim that 99 percent of passengers “consent” to full-body scans is less impressive. Still, it is not surprising that most people would choose showing their bodies to a TSA agent they cannot see over letting one get up close and personal, which is a more conspicuous, embarrassing and degrading experience. That does not mean they’re fine with the scoping, only that the groping is worse.
The TSA likes to cite a CBS poll conducted a few weeks ago that found 81 percent of Americans support the new scanners. But the pollsters did not mention the scanners reveal passengers’ naked bodies. Not surprisingly, polls that allude to this fact tend to find less support for the machines. A Gallup poll conducted a few days before Thanksgiving found that 42 percent of fliers object to the scanners, while a Zogby poll conducted around the same time found 61 percent of likely voters oppose the TSA’s new procedures.
As more scanners are installed and virtual strip searches become routine, opposition may increase. Then again, Americans have a history, at airports and elsewhere, of getting used to invasions of privacy and infringements of liberty justified in the name of public safety.
Requirements that once seemed objectionable — from surrendering your pocket tools and beverages to taking off your shoes, from mandatory seat belt laws to DUI roadblocks, from divulging your Social Security number to showing your papers, from letting police dogs sniff your stuff to signing a registry when you buy allergy medicine — have a way of becoming the new normal.
Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine.