How to kill the TSA’s full body scanners — once and for all

It started like it always does, just a few moments before I checked in for my flight.

The sweating. The heart thumping uncontrollably inside my chest. The weak knees.

But one look at the blue paramilitary TSA uniforms in the airport terminal, and I thought this would be worse.

Much worse.

It wasn’t only because I had to see my entire family — which includes a five-year-old girl and two boys, ages seven and ten — through a TSA screening area. It was also because for the first time, I found our path to the terminal obstructed by one of the poorly-tested scanners.

The TSA has forced air travelers to make a preposterous choice between a full-body scan, which potentially exposes you to harmful radiation, and an “enhanced” pat-down, for the last two years. For me, it was always an easy call to make: pat me down if you have to, but don’t microwave me.

But now I was making a decision for my kids, and I didn’t know if it was the right one.

I approached a TSA agent.

“I need a male and female assist, please,” I said. “We’re opting out.”

A Morton’s Fork

Every day across the country, other air travelers make the same difficult choice. They either walk through the scanners, hoping for the best, or they take their chances with a pat-down that may or may not violate their dignity.

For those of us who believe we shouldn’t have to make that kind of decision — indeed, that in the Land of the Free, we shouldn’t be treated like potential terrorists whenever we travel — we received some good news last week when it appeared the TSA was backing down from using what are believed to be the most dangerous of the full-body scanners.

As it turns out, the story was not quite all that the agency’s critics had hoped for. The TSA was just reshuffling some of its scanners, an event that had already been reported this summer.

Will we ever get rid of the Morton’s Fork presented by the TSA?

Yes, we will. And the time may be now.

Let’s opt out

It all came into focus just a day before I asked a TSA agent to pat down my entire family. It came by way of reader Jack Bowman, a technology consultant from Dallas who told me he objected to the TSA’s ineffective screening practices, but that at the end of the day, he chooses to opt out of the scanner for what he calls “contentious reasons.”

He’s trying to slow down the line.

“The TSA is a waste of my money and unconstitutional,” he says. “Personally, I think we would all be a lot safer if the TSA went away.”

With just one or two dissidents like him out there, the TSA can have its way with us. But what if everyone decided to opt out?

That was the idea behind National Opt-Out Day in 2010, the product of a loose coalition of activists that was called a “bust” by mainstream media. (Indeed, the movement seems to be history. An online search for its website takes you to a company selling discount prescription drugs.)

But now, the momentum is building for a second, more sustained opt-out protest which would take place during an entire week, from Nov. 19 to 26. The idea, first suggested by the activist site InfoWars, is now being seriously discussed among activists, and is gaining traction among passengers.

The reasoning behind a National Opt-Out Week is this: If the TSA decides to shut down its scanners in response to the protest, as it allegedly did in 2010, activists would have ample opportunity to document the action over a period of a week. TSA critics would then have more than enough evidence to prove that these scans and pat-downs are a false choice and do practically nothing to improve our safety.

No one wants to fly with the fear of a terrorist blowing up a plane. But do we have to trade that fear for the anxiety that comes every time we fly? Do we have to be treated like a suspect by the TSA, to be forced through a metal detector, scanned, and maybe frisked like dangerous prisoners?

I think you have the right to travel without experiencing that kind of fear.

I consider myself lucky. When I asked the TSA agent to frisk my family, he laughed and waved us through the magnetometer.

“You don’t have to go through the scanner,” he said.

As we made our way through the screening area, I felt myself relaxing.

Then I turned to take one last look at the dreaded scanner. I saw a young woman standing inside, her legs slightly spread, her hands high in the air as if she were being held at gunpoint.

She looked about six months pregnant.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Raven_Altosk

    The poll? I do not think this poll goes here? :D

    Anyway, you’ve seen my recent run ins with the TSA. I never got a response to my question as to why pregnant women were waved through the scanner but children were not.

    I also dealt with Agent Nikki in IAH who needs to go to beauty school or back to high school because if this is the best the TSA can hire, I know a few Walmarts who are shy some greeters.

  • EdB

    Who is Jay Hillman and what is their case? I have a feeling this is not the poll that was suppose to go with this story. :)

  • MarkieA

    I really hope it works this time. If everyone gives themselves a bit – probably more than a bit since this is prime travel time – more time for the airport portion of your travel this year, a clear message MAY be sent. My mother is coming to visit for Thanksgiving this year, I’ll be sure to warn her of the extra time she should allow.

  • cahdot

    i can just hear it or read about it years from now that these machines will be responsible for some new kind of cancer esp to the people next to them daily ohhh what a class action workers comp lawsuit that will be…

  • TonyA_says

    Who is Jay Hillman? And what is the case the poll is referring to? Is my browser messed up this morning or am I having a bad case of vertigo?

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    I had the wrong poll on this story in an early version of this story. Sorry!

  • http://tsanewsblog.com/214/news/history-repeats-itself-with-tsas-strip-search-tactics/ Lisa Simeone

    I think this also has to do with the TSA’s stonewalling of the court order to hold a public comment period. They’ve thumbed their nose at the courts for over a year and were given another 9 months to hold this public comment period. I believe they’re taking this time to replace the backscatter scanners so that people can’t claim 1)they’re getting dosed with radiation, and 2)their graphically nude image is being seen by some clown in a back room.

    http://tsanewsblog.com/6240/news/tsa-thumbs-its-nose-at-the-law-courts-say-ok/

    Meanwhile, yet more millions of our tax dollars are going down the drain. And the MMW scanners, as we’ve reported umpteen times, have a 54% false-positive rate. With the TSA, it’s all propaganda all the time.
    (Oh, and too bad for people at small airports: Uncle Sam says it doesn’t care if you continue to get irradiated and virtually strip-searched.)

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    I answered this question in the comments. But tomorrow you get to find out who Jay Hillman is. He’s on deck for Monday’s “can this trip be saved” feature.

  • EdB

    Yes. I saw that. But at the time I posted my comment, there were no other comments. :)

  • RetiredNavyphotog

    I would not participate because this is the week of Thanksgiving – one of the busiest travel weeks.
    I would not want to slow down anyone who is traveling to see family.
    Couldn’t they have picked a different week?

  • EdB

    This week was chosen specifically for those reasons. The idea is to get as many people upset with the TSA because of their faulty procedures this is a huge out cry to congress to get rid of them.

    But I do understand your point and I have mixed feelings about doing it that week. My feeling is it will just hurt the people wanting to go somewhere and create more of a backlash against the protesters than the TSA.

    Personally, I am opting out by not flying period. Hit the airline’s bottom line is probably a better way to go. They are the one with the lobbyists that can get things done quicker.

  • LJBROCK

    In theory, I agree with an opt-out week, but I sure would hate to be flying that week if this thing really works. I’d be really upset at missing my flight because security was so slow because of the opt outs, especially, if I had arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare.

    If I were flying that week, I would choose to opt-out, but I would also be arriving at the airport super early, but what about the people who don’t know anything about it??

  • Jim Daniel

    I heard part of a newscast on radio that the TSA is very quietly removing some of their scanners. ARE WE HAVING AN EFFECT? I could never chalk it up to intelligence from within a government agency.
    Has anyone heard more about this?

  • cjr001

    “that was called a “bust” by mainstream media.”

    National Opt Out Day was NOT a bust, it was a HUGE success.

    TSA shut down the scanners to avoid hold ups. What does that tell you? That not only did they want to avoid problems, but – if you believe the scanners actually serve a purpose – TSA was more than willing to put national security on the line in the process.

    National Opt Out Day proved that the scanners are unnecessary. It also proved that the media in this country is worthless.

    “She looked about six months pregnant.”

    And TSA will never have to admit that they killed an unborn child with radiation, since they never admit they do anything wrong.

  • cjr001

    Sorry, but one doesn’t sacrifice their rights just because it’s a holiday.

  • http://tsanewsblog.com/214/news/history-repeats-itself-with-tsas-strip-search-tactics/ Lisa Simeone

    Jim, yes, Chris links to that story in this very post.

  • http://tsanewsblog.com/214/news/history-repeats-itself-with-tsas-strip-search-tactics/ Lisa Simeone

    RetiredNavyphotog, we get this argument a lot. But think about other movements for social justice in this country’s history. You could argue they were all “inconvenient.” That’s the point of protest. It’s inconvenient.

    There were many black people who weren’t on board with their compatriots during the civil rights movement, who opposed the bus boycotts, the lunch counter sit-ins, the Freedom Rides. Who said, and I quote, “You ought to know better.”

    In other words, this is the way things are. Just accept it.

    People said the same thing to women before they had a right to vote. To sweat shop workers when they were trying to form unions. To child labor reformers. All these people were told that their protests were inconvenient, were upsetting somebody somewhere.

    Social change doesn’t come from sitting back and waiting for a convenient moment. That moment will never come. Social change happens when people make it happen.

  • http://flyicarusfly.com/ Fly, Icarus, Fly

    I’m going to take an unpopular stance here. I don’t really mind the scanner and I’d take it over a pat down any day. If someone wants to get their jollies in a back room seeing my body (even I don’t want to see my own body!), be my guest. Just get me through the line faster.

  • http://www.facebook.com/diane.schenker.ak Diane Schenker

    Unfortunately, it is not really “opt out”, it is “opt to be sexually abused”, and no, I would never opt to be sexually abused by the TSA or anyone else. However, I completely agree that the scanners are unacceptable, and therefore, I opt out of flying altogether unless I can get a flight on a small plane that is exempt from TSA screenings. A national “Opt Out” day needs to include a mechanism for those of us who will not fly at all to be heard/seen, too. I suggest that anyone who had chosen not to go through the TSA checkpoints at all should show up at their airport with a sign stating that they have OPTED OUT of TSA’s abuse of travelers.

  • Nigel Appleby

    I think that an opt-out protest would certainly slow things down, but I also think that TSA wouldn’t care because it’s not their problem to get people to their destinations when flights have been missed.
    Passengers will be upset with TSA, the airlines will be upset with TSA and so on, but TSA will just put on their righteous hat and say they’re just trying to protect the travelling public.
    I’m not convinced the protest would cause anything other than huge crowds in airports, but as I’m not planning to fly during that week I won’t have first hand knowledge.

  • Lil25

    I would opt out (I always do), but my husband recently finished his Ph.D in engineering and has no job, so we are forced to move back in with our parents. So, this year we will be packing up everything we can fit into our clunky model 1992 car and driving the 18 hours it takes us to get home.

    Best of luck to all those who do participate. We are with you in spirit!

  • Lil25

    That’s an insult to Walmart!

  • BMG4ME

    The best way to opt out in my opinion is to apply for Global Entry which then gives you access to TSA Pre wherever its offered. This is better than getting rid of the scanners because it also allows me to keep all my clothing on me.

  • http://tsanewsblog.com/214/news/history-repeats-itself-with-tsas-strip-search-tactics/ Lisa Simeone

    BMG4ME, Pre-Check is a boondoggle. You might not get scanned, you might not get groped, you might not get your belongings pawed, you might not have to take your shoes off, your jacket, your laptop out. Might might might. The TSA itself says so.

    We’ve reported this several times (but I know it’s hard to keep up with all the TSA rules and regs); here’s a recent link:

    http://tsanewsblog.com/6652/news/tsa-continues-to-trumpet-pre-check-boondoggle/

    Though I think the more important point is that it’s ethically indefensible. It’s the embodiment of “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.”

  • Joe Farrell

    Number of TSA seizures of illegal weapons, drugs, cash, knives, etc etc etc. : Untold Numbers reported by TSA

    Number of prosecutions of those persons for Attempted Air Piracy: Zero.

    ’nuff said. Defines TSA.

  • jebaker

    So let’s take these scanners with health risks and move them to smaller airports and maybe they will cause less cancer. Huh??? I find it so sad to see lines of people who go through these machines in Chicago thinking they are helping security and who don’t want to rock the boat. Can’t you see the TV commercials now…”did you travel through the following airports during the years xyz and xx? If so, you may be entitled to a settlement if you got cancer. Not to mention the TSA clerk health issues!

  • http://twitter.com/pineapplejuice Keith Higa

    I, personally, would rather get cancer and/or turn into the Hulk from that single scan, than have someone I don’t know touch me down there. I have given only one person permission to touch me in the nether regions, and she’s not a TSA agent.

  • cjr001

    What is likely to happen is the same as during National Opt Out Day:
    They shut down the scanners (which already take longer to go through than a traditional metal detector),
    They flag far fewer people for their ‘random’ assaults,
    And then if you tell them you’re opting out, they wave you through anyways.

    TSA’s only objective will not be security, but to make sure the media thinks the Opt Out Week is a failure.

  • MarkieA

    I think the point is, that it’s too bad that these are the only two options we have.

  • A J Place

    I was on my way to France when I was pulled aside and frisked by the TSA. I did not know that there was an option to be scanned by the ‘full body’ scanner. Since I have a knee replacement, I set off the metal detector. I explained what the problem was thinking I would be ‘wand’. They said I should have said something before I went through. At this point the only option was to be fully frisked. I couldn’t go through the full body scanner at this point. The choice I had was to be frisked there in front of everybody or to be taken to a room. Of couse, the only choice I saw was to have a private frisking. It was not terrible, but it wasn’t pleasant. I was told that there was signage everywhere about the choice to have the full body scan was everywhere, but I didn’t see a single sign of it. I don’t hate the TSA for doing there job, but I think the job they do is way out of proportion to what is needed. Since then I have ‘opted out’ of flying altogether and chose to drive whenever I travel in the country.

  • Alan Gore

    I’m the one other person nationwide who sees it your way. I consider going through the scanner a lot less intrusive than being groped, and vague fears on the part of the usual suspects that scanners might “cause cancer” someday don’t change that perception for me.

    If we’re going to reform the TSA, I’m much more concerned about the luggage-looting problems. Let’s find the bad apples and get rid of them at once. If the media would like to do something useful, let’s see some high;y visible sting operations like the ABC investigation to uncover crooks within the agency.

  • http://flyicarusfly.com/ Fly, Icarus, Fly

    As far as I’ve read, the scanners are along the same lines as mobile phones or microwaves. Sporadic short-term exposure is not harmful. I don’t believe that the 20 seconds or so that I’m there will have any lasting detriment to my health.

  • http://flyicarusfly.com/ Fly, Icarus, Fly

    I was surprised once in Nepal when they had officers frisking people as they were in line for boarding. And the frisking was rather forceful. So in comparison, I don’t mind the TSA. Do I think they’re effective? Probably not. Is it one of the top social wrongs on my radar? No.

  • http://flyicarusfly.com/ Fly, Icarus, Fly

    Yeah, I’m with you, Alan…

  • http://flyicarusfly.com/ Fly, Icarus, Fly

    That’s true. And the video on how easy it was for some guy to get a piece of metal through the scanner was discomforting…

  • Bill Carr

    Seriously, you are equating boycotting the TSA scanners to the Civil Rights movement and Women s Suffrage?? Flying is not a right it is a privilege. Boycotting on the busiest week of the year is a selfish reaction by the so called few trying to “protect” me, kinda like the Occupy Moment I do not need anyone to to make my life safer or better thank you very much. What I do need is to not be held up trying to get home to my wife and family at Thanksgiving. Quite honestly the anti-TSA people will not be happy until anyone will be able to wander off the street and saunter up to the boarding gate as they like because whether it is the TSA or a private security company there will be some perceived “infringement” on their rights.. I rack up about 100k miles per year both domestically and internationally and there are far worse screening processes in other countries than there are here. Honestly if you don’t like it don’t fly….

  • Mundane Lustrator

    1. Flying (or any means of legal travel) is a right for any law-abiding citizen, as has been held by the courts.

    2. No rational person who objects to TSA’s violating our bodies and our privacy want NO security at airports.

    3. Your “don’t like it, don’t fly” is a straw man argument. Law-abiding citizens have the right to travel domestically by any means for which they can pay. Many business and pleasure travelers have no practical choice or no choice at all whether to fly, versus car, train, bus, walk, bike, etc.

    How would you feel if all of these “security” measures were returned to pre-scanner levels? Would you raise a fit, demanding to be scanned or patted-down or you’ll protest? How would you feel if at that time someone told you, “if you don’t like it, don’t fly.”

  • Mundane Lustrator

    TSA definitely need to improve their communication and signage so passengers know their rights and options. Over the past several months, I’ve seen TSA staff say, “There are signs! Why don’t people read them!” It appears they refuse to understand that poorly written, designed, and placed signage is useless. Additionally, they appear to refuse to understand that not everyone can read, not everyone can read English, and not everyone has 20/20 vision.

  • cjr001

    “Honestly if you don’t like it don’t fly”

    Don’t like it, don’t fly.
    Don’t like it, don’t take the bus.
    Don’t like it, don’t take the subway.
    Don’t like it, don’t take the ferry.
    Don’t like it, don’t take the highway.

    Don’t like it, don’t go to the courthouse.
    Don’t like it, don’t go to the sports stadium.
    Don’t like it, don’t go to the mall.

    Don’t like it, don’t leave your house.

    Honestly…

  • cjr001

    Who’d you read that from, TSA’s incomplete ‘reports’?

  • Susan J. Barretta

    I don’t fly any more so I won’t even “opt out.”

    The only way I would get near an airport these days is only with a group of concerned people who are willing to put on a protest. Not a violent and disruptive one. It can be an amusing and entertaining one which is more likely to get peoples’ attention and thus make them more willing to accept literature from you. I participated in two protests when I still lived in Los Angeles. The second one was last Thanksgiving Day, and it wasn’t in the airport, but on a street corner a few blocks away.

    If anybody in the Salt Lake City area is up for it, let me know.

  • DavidYoung2

    Too funny that this guy felt he was ‘lucky’ to go through the regular scanner. Dude — they don’t put small kids through there. Kids go through the metal detector along with the accompanying parent or parents. We’ve flown 14 segments so far this year, and it’s the same story every time. Kids keep on their shoes and sweaters and go through the metal detector. Parents have to remove shoes and sweaters, but go through the metal detector with the kids.

  • DavidYoung2

    Just FYI, the cell phone glued to your head emits far more radiation directly into your brain, as does living near power lines, standing too close to a microwave, the natural radon in your house or even that alarm clock next to you.

    Fun facts: The cosmic radiation you are subjected to during your flight or just ONE cigarette has many times more radiation than the scanners. It’s true, look it up at http://www.epa.gov/radtown.

  • NearDowntown

    You are advocating this opt-out action for the week of Thanksgiving? Really? I have been concerned, disappointed and frankly turned off by your almost psychotic, maniacal hatred of the TSA in the past, but wow, this is a new low. You’re advocating turning what is arguably one of the worst travel weeks of the year into an even bigger mess because of your need to strike out at the TSA, no matter the added stress for millions of other passengers who are trying to spend some holiday time with family and friends. Your ego and selfishness amaze me.

  • http://tsanewsblog.com/214/news/history-repeats-itself-with-tsas-strip-search-tactics/ Lisa Simeone

    Jill, TSA agents also often ignore their own rules and regulations, or make up new ones on the spot. The signs mean nothing when the blue-shirted wonders don’t respect them.

  • http://tsanewsblog.com/214/news/history-repeats-itself-with-tsas-strip-search-tactics/ Lisa Simeone

    TSullivan, yeah, Rosa Parks was a drag, too. After all, she could still get where she was going. Nobody was stopping her. Why did she have to cause trouble and inconvenience everybody else? “Ego! Selfishness!”

  • http://www.facebook.com/sommer.gentry Sommer Gentry

    I’ll be participating in Opt Out and Film week. It’s important that we insist on our First Amendment rights to document the disgusting way that TSA violates our Fourth Amendment rights. You need to place the blame for any “added stress” and “mess” where it belongs – on the un-American, filthy, buying-an-airline-ticket-makes-you-guilty-until-we-sexually-assault-you tactics of the TSA.

  • Fisher1949

    Boo hoo all so important one, deal with it. If you don’t like it, don’t fly that week.

    So you’re time waiting in line is far more valuable than someone exercising their rights? Are you a TSA troll or hopelessly intimidated by government?

  • SierraRose 49

    My husband wears an insulin pump and has been advised by Medtronic NOT to go through the body scanner. OK, you say. Well, sometimes it’s hard to communicate with TSA that you must “opt out” of the scanner. And sometimes when you request the pat-down they get huffy. So, you lose either way. Here’s another thing. We just came through PHX Sky Harbor and TSA demanded that we remove our tablet and Nook and the bag of “wires” (power cables; chargers, etc). This was in addition to our laptop which was already out in the gray bin. We had previously been told at other airports that our tablet, Nook and “wires” could stay in our computer bag. Apparently the rules have changed. At least at PHX Sky Harbor. TSA is on a power trip.

  • Deb

    When they stop all of this nonsense, then I will fly again. Until then, I opt not to fly.