Don’t Touch My Junk – Security Screening Questions

by Matt | 1 Year Sabbatical on November 16, 2010

Airport Security Screening - Pistol ImageIt was a phrase heard all over the news yesterday and will probably be a phrase referred to for many years to come.  “Don’t touch my junk.”  This was the phrase uttered by John Tyner a traveler who opted out of the backscatter x-ray screening at the San Diego airport and was subsequently pulled aside for an “enhanced” pat down.  After a comment to the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) officer to the effect of “if you touch my junk I’ll have you arrested” a supervisor was called in and he ultimately was not allowed to fly and was removed from the airport due to his refusal to submit to screening procedure. 

Securing the safety of travelers is a subject that has been on a lot of minds since 9/11.  We all know about the enhanced security methods employed by the TSA at most airports throughout the US and what that entails for getting through security and on your flight.  Yes, we need security but at what cost?

What Is Your Security Worth?

This really got me thinking about a lot of things.  First I reflected on how, in my personal opinion, things have really gone too far in terms of infringing on individual rights and privacy since 9/11, but secondly I wondered how security is approached in other parts of the world.  Do other countries have the same concerns regarding terrorism and if so what tactics have they taken to reduce the threat?

First I want to make the distinction between airport security and personal security.  What I am referring to in this post is not individual personal security for example things such as carrying your money in a money belt or other safe place, always being alert to your surroundings, and not traveling alone at night.  I’m strictly talking about security that is out of your own hands and directed by others.  Personal security is a whole different topic that I hope to write about in the near future.

I’m talking about the security screening we go through these days as we travel from one location to another.  The last time we traveled as a family was in 2005, long before backscatter x-ray machines were in place.  I recall having to take my shoes off (I made sure I wore easy slip-on shoes), empty my pockets; and place all of our carry-on onto the conveyor belt so it could get scanned.  Then we walked through the metal detector and collected our things on the other side.  It was all pretty easy, straightforward and painless.  And this may very well be the same procedure the vast majority of people face today as well.  But I know that eventually I may get selected for additional security screening that would involve either a backscatter x-ray (naked scanner) or an enhanced pat-down procedure.

Personally I don’t like either option.  I think they violate an individual’s right to privacy and dignity.  I don’t think it’s right that a person should be subjected to what in effect is a naked scan of their body that some stranger is looking at let alone questions about the long term safety of such scanners for the frequent flyer.  I don’t think it is right that an individual can be subjected to a physical pat-down that involves actually touching the genital area.  It’s an affront to a person’s right to not be touched inappropriately.  I certainly would not tolerate my kids enduring either option.  What I find interesting is that we wouldn’t tolerate a stranger physically touching us in such a way outside of an airport (it would be considered a crime) but we tolerate it inside an airport when the government does it and it’s all in the name of safety.  Don’t get me wrong here, I fully understand the need for security but there are ways to go about it and ways to not go about it.  I think we have gone in the wrong direction.

Security Procedures Outside the US

With my own personal opinion of US security aside I am curious as to what airport security is like outside of the US.  My only experience has been traveling between the US and Indonesia where I was only subjected to an x-ray scan of my luggage and a quick walk through a metal detector and maybe a brush over with a wand.  In fact the first time I arrived in Indonesia I was walked completely around all security and out of the airport.  So my questions for all you frequent world travelers out there are:

  1. What is airport security like in other countries?
  2. Do airport security measures bother you at all?  Have you considered not traveling because of them?
  3. Are you ever overly concerned for your safety while traveling?

I’m looking forward to your comments and observations from around the globe.  On Thursday I have a great post lined up on why learning a language before taking your sabbatical is so important and can make your transition so much easier.

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Gillian November 16, 2010 at 10:41 am

Are all US travelers required to step inside the screener? Here in Canada there is a protocol that involves the regular ‘walk through’ metal detector and an xray of carry on baggage. If one ‘fails’ the walk through then a wand screen is used, then I think maybe a cursory pat down (so not invasive…really) and then, failing all that, if there is still concern a full body scan is used. It seems like a reasonable use of technology when done this way.

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matt November 16, 2010 at 11:33 am

Hi Gillian! I may be wrong about this but I don’t think all travelers are pulled aside to go through the backscatter x-ray scanner or the enhanced pat-down. I also don’t know how TSA makes the determination on who goes through the additional security screening or how many people we are talking about here. From your description it sounds like Canada has a better approach that respects the individual from unnecessary physical contact. There are some low-tech solutions to detecting explosives that should maybe be considered such as bomb detecting dogs. I’d much rather have a dog sniff my crotch than a stranger cup me with his hands.

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Ryan November 16, 2010 at 11:55 am

Matt- I am definitely concerned about this issue, it is quite a hot button for me.
First of all, there is the old quote, “those who would give up their liberty for security deserve neither liberty nor security.” In the name of “security”, the government has incrementally taken away individual liberty and will continue to do so “to insure our safety” [cue movie the V for Vendetta].
I am still a young guy and can remember traveling to Canada without a passport. But now, it’s like an old B-movie covering WWII Nazis where all the agents are yelling “Papers please!” This used to be a recognized warning to the culture at large as a sign of an overgrown government. Now, you can hardly do anything without your “papers”, and it is accepted as “normal.”
Furthermore, I am wondering when the so-called “terrorist-hunt” will be counted successful and the US will no longer need the TSA, i.e., at what point will the US gov’t say, “OK, you know what? We really have in fact made you safer… There is in fact a lower terrorist threat now than before, and so we can just shut down the TSA, since it was originally created on the basis of a terrorist threat.” I personally believe this will never happen because the governments need the concept of “terrorism” in order to grow their power in the name of “security”. We forget that we had, what, 65+ years of commercial aviation with no TSA? Now all of a sudden it is accepted as permanent?
Also, as far as security measures that have me concerned, I have decided that I will not submit to a full body scan, period. If there ever comes a point when it is required throughout the whole US. I won’t fly, and I will probably leave the country permanently. It is my last straw, so to speak.
So anyways, you’ve reminded me that I need to do some research about the TSA at the airports I am flying through to Colombia. 🙂
Ryan recently posted..The Young and The Restless- Five Emerging Blogs In Adventure &amp Lifestyle Design

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matt November 16, 2010 at 9:54 pm

I’m with you Ryan. I too remember going to Canada and crossing the border without any “papers”. The thing about incrementally giving up our rights is that we give an inch but they take a mile. Once you’ve given it away it is very hard to get it back. And where does it all stop? At what point do people draw the line and say we are not going to tolerate this? I’m still curious to hear what security is like in other parts of the world. From Gillian of One Giant Step it sounds like Canada doesn’t have the invasive pat-down screening. I’ve heard Israel has tight security and I wonder if they “touch” passengers? It will be interesting to see where this issue goes and whether more people will stand up and say “I think this is wrong and I’m not going to submit to it”. I heard there is a group that is advocating that passengers opt out of the scan this holiday season and instead opt for the enhanced pat-down as a way of slowing down the screening process. It will be interesting to see what happens if anything.

You pose a really good questions regarding a war on terrorism. How is it defined and how will one know when it is successful and over? You may very well be correct that the government will use this perceived threat as a way to flex it’s power. At some point I think Americans will nhave to stand up and voice opposition. What will be interesting is to see how these additional security methods affect travel. Will people really use alternative methods of transportation or will people just submit? Thanks for voicing your opinion here Ryan! I definitely share your concerns.

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Karen November 16, 2010 at 8:32 pm

What bothers me most about this “enhanced pat down” and the backscatter x-rays is that people in this country seem more than willing to accept this personal intrusion simply because the government tells us it’s necessary for our safety when flying. The reason why 9/11 happened was because this same government dropped the ball and now they are trying to make up for their negligence by scaring the crap out of us. If ALL the cargo on passenger planes is not being searched or x-rayed I fail to see how feeling up Grandma is going to make me any safer when I get on a plane. IF the TSA has REASON to believe that I, a 62 year old grandmother, is a threat to national security then tell me what that is and why I should submit to “enhanced security”. Considering that I am a law abiding citizen who hasn’t even ever gotten a traffic ticket I fail to see why I should be put through an invasive and humiliating experience just to meet some security quota. There is a reason why the TSA recently changed their uniforms to look more like a law enforcement uniform – it’s to intimidate you. THEY decide whether you get to fly or not and because we, the American public, know this and want to get where we want to go and fast we put up with it. The last time my husband and I flew was last July. At the airport some young TSA agent addressed my 65 year old retired Marine husband as “Mike”. What happened to the respectful Mr. Johnson greeting? At another airport while my shoes and purse were going through the x-ray machine the two TSA employees who were supposed to be watching the X-ray screen were busy talking about another employee and barely glanced at the machine. But because I am the 12th or 15th person in line I have to submit to standing basically naked before a stranger or allowing hands on my private areas? And travelers allow this every day withoout complaint and until we starting complaining loud and clear and refuse this invasion absolutely nothing will change and we won’t be any safer in the long run anyway. But we are sheeples in this country and if everyone else is ok with it then I guess we have to be also because after all the GOVERNMENT is telling us it’s necessary. Yeah, right!

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matt November 16, 2010 at 10:12 pm

I agree. There are definitely areas that are very lax in terms of security and that are not being looked at. And who is to say that terrorists are even considering attacking via planes again. It could be a bus or a train. Just because the last attack utilized an airplane doesn’t mean the next will. Just today in Eugene there was a guy who parked his van in front of the downtown US Post Office and threatened to blow it up. I wonder if we will start to have naked scans taken to mail a letter now?

Here is the problem that I see. Once you inject fear into the populace it’s easy to get out of control especially when the fire is fanned by the government and media. It’s easy to reach a state of hysteria where common sense is no longer used. This is where I think we are at in this country. People have become so afraid of these perceived threats that they have failed to apply critical thinking to what is really going on. Do these methods really make us more secure? Are these backscatter scans really safe? Do you really want your 13 year old daughter groped by some TSA stranger? Thanks for your comments!

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Gail November 16, 2010 at 10:28 pm

The people that made the decision to have the public stripped or groped to get on a plane, are those that ride private jets and never have to be subjected to such humiliation.

First we were told that the naked pictures were simply looked at in real time, and not kept in the computer. Then we found out that was a lie. The computer had stored 1000’s of photos (for what purpose?) Then we were told that the faces were blurred, but then we found out that one of the TSA employees was mocked by his co-workers, obviously they knew who it was http://boingboing.net/2010/05/06/naked-scanner-reveal.html

If the luggage isn’t screened, then what is the point of putting people through this indignity? Experts have said these xrays will not show explosives inserted in a body cavity, so will the next step be Airport Colonoscopies?

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matt November 18, 2010 at 1:15 am

You make some really good points Gail. What good is putting up a door with 50 deadbolts if you leave the back window open. You are no closer to being secure. The last couple of days have shown that people are concerned and upset about this policy despite what the “polls” done by the media show. Thanks for commenting!

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Amanda November 17, 2010 at 1:40 am

All of this “enhanced” security is getting out of hand. I mean, it was inconvenient enough to have to take off your shoes and only carry liquids in 3-ounce containers. But now we’ve also got to deal with “naked scanners” and invasive pat-downs? It’s just taking things way too far.

I hate the idea of both the scanners AND the enhanced pat-downs. The idea of being subjected to either of them makes me feel a bit dirty. And I know that I’m not alone in feeling this way.

I’m really interested to see how this “say no” campaign works the day before Thanksgiving. Hopefully enough people opt out of the scanners to at least cause a little ripple, if not make a giant wave.

I’m not flying again until February. I’m hoping maybe some of these new measures will be removed by then. But, if not, I think I’d be more likely to opt out of the scanner, and take my chances with the pat-down. I’d much rather have ONE female TSA agent touching me than God knows how many agents essentially looking at me with no clothes on.
Amanda recently posted..Is Anybody Out There Hang in There- Travel Bloggers

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matt November 18, 2010 at 4:20 pm

Hi Amanda! I share your same concerns. I’m hoping that people will come to their senses and that changes will take place that eliminate these invasions into personal rights. What I really find interesting is that if a stranger were to touch someone in the same manner the TSA agents do during the “enhanced” pat-down outside of the airport it would be considered a crime. But because it is done by the government in the name of safety its apparently OK. I’m not buying it. That kind of mentality is a direct route to further abuses of basic individual rights.

I too am interested to see how the “say no” campaign will go. I’m seeing much more stories in the media about people really upset by this so hopefully we’ll see some changes. We just can’t allow people to be subjected to questionable radiation and what amounts to groping just to be able to travel. Thanks for your comments and perspective and adding to the conversation.

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Sarah Wu November 20, 2010 at 1:33 am

Hey Matt, I think it’s random for now. They might need to required everyone later but who knows. I think for security reason they think that will help. I don’t know how this will turn out in the future. I’ve see a video in Japan kind of of poking fun at TSA. It’s an controversial topic that you’ll see like 2 or 3 times on twitter now.lol

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matt November 21, 2010 at 5:39 pm

Hi Sarah! In my opinion it is needlessly controversial. We shouldn’t have to submit ourselves to screening that in any other circumstance would be an illegal and punishable offense. More and more stories of abuse and humiliation are coming out. The controversial part is whether these moments of molestation really make us any safer or is it all just a dog and pony show? It will be interesting to see how opt out day plays out. Thanks for commenting!

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Erica November 21, 2010 at 3:58 am

Last year when that guy tried to blow up the plane by lighting his underwear on fire, all flights from around the world coming into the US had to have all passengers patted down and their backpacks/purses searches extensively – and this was AFTER going through the security checkpoint before being able to sit at the gate in Madrid, Spain.

After the agent had me spread my legs, take off all excess clothing, and stuck her fingers down my pants around the elastic of my undies, I grabbed my things and started weeping in the corner. Never have I felt so violated. Shaun and I are leaving on our backpacking trip in March of 2011. I cringe at the thought of being that humiliated again.
Erica recently posted..For Love and Travel

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matt November 21, 2010 at 5:55 pm

Hi Erica. Your experience really disturbs me. I don’t think anyone should have to endure something like what you went through. We tell our kids that if someone touches them in an inappropriate manner it is wrong and they need to tell someone. And now in the name of safety we are in effect saying it is OK as long as it’s in an airport done by the government. There are no exceptions when it comes to not wanting to be touched. The other day I read on MSN about a guy who is a bladder cancer survivor and has to wear a urostomy bag and was patted down by the TSA. They proceeded to pat him down even after he warned them of the bag and they ended up breaking the seal leaving him covered in urine. There has to be a better way to screen people without violating people like this. I hope by the time you take your next trip this madness will have ended. Thanks for sharing your experience Erica.

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Stacey March 1, 2012 at 9:24 pm

Good day Matt | 1 Year Sabbatical I liked your great article on Don’t Touch My Junk. Many thanks for this great blog.
Stacey recently posted..How to Draw a Portrait

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