Is the TSA’s “opt-out” policy a scam?

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How badly does the TSA want you to use its full-body scanners? Badly enough to bend a few facts, say passengers like Melissa Paul.

Paul’s story is definitely worth paying attention to, even if it looks familiar. And it’s a timely one, too, in light of a federal judge’s declaration yesterday that air travel is a right, not a privilege. It’ll make you wonder if the TSA’s so-called “opt-out” policy isn’t just a big scam that’s meant to herd us into one of these machines.

Wait for the poll, please.

A few weeks ago, Paul was making an international connection through Phoenix, so she had to go through security a second time.

“They opened the Pre-Check area to other travelers and I thought I would get the regular metal detector instead of the full body imaging scanner,” she recalls.

She was wrong.

“The TSA agent directed me to the full-body scanner after my companion and I had already placed our bags on the conveyor belt for the X-ray scanner,” she says.

Paul, like a lot of smart air travelers, prefers not to use the poorly-tested and controversial advanced imaging technology.

She continues,

I was standing right next to the sign that explains the “Advanced Imaging Technology” and advised that travelers may opt out of the screening. I pointed at the sign and told the TSA agent that I would like to opt out.

He directed me to wait just next to the AIT scanner. He loudly announced to everyone else waiting and going through the scanner how little radiation there was and that it is completely safe and painless.

Paul spent 10 minutes waiting in the TSA timeout box. She finally asked an agent if she could be screened.

“We don’t have a female agent available right now for a pat down,” the agent replied.

“What about her?” Paul asked, pointing to an agent on the other side of the AIT who was waving everyone through.

“We’re short handed right now,” the agent insisted.

“What about him?” she asked, pointing to another agent at the metal detector, who was standing there, not doing anything.

“We’re short-staffed,” the agent repeated.

Paul waited another 10 minutes.

“Eventually, I couldn’t wait any longer without risking missing my flight and had to go through the AIT,” she says. “I guess if you have to stand around until it is time for your flight to leave eventually you will make the right decision.”

The right decision, according to the TSA, would be to avoid a retaliatory wait time and comply with the screening.

After all, it’s for your own safety — unless you have a little Pre-Check icon on your boarding pass or unless the “randomizer” chooses you to go through the metal detector.

The right decision, according to me and others, would be to politely tell the TSA agent “no thank you.” You don’t have to be an activist to know that the machines are easily foiled, unproven, possibly even dangerous.

If you ask me, the TSA has no business pressuring us into one of these machines. For some air travelers, the TSA’s “opt-out” policy could be viewed as a tricky way of getting us to step inside these poorly-tested machines. In other words, the policy (perhaps even the machines themselves) are a scam, in the broadest sense of the word.

But I acknowledge that there are some people out there who think these full-body scanners are a necessary layer of security and that without them terrorists would be blowing our planes out of the sky.

And that’s why we have today’s poll. Here you go.

Is the TSA's "opt-out" policy a scam?

View Results

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And by popular demand, here’s another poll about the headline on this story. I aim to please!

Is the headline in this article a "scam"?

View Results

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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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  • lcpossum

    On the contrary “scam” was used correctly with regard to my last experience with screening. I also “opted out” and had to wait 35 minutes for the pat down all while TSA was giving my carryon and laptop special treatment. They banged the corner of the laptop where the backup drive plugs in and now it doesn’t plug anymore. So, yes, something physical was taken from me by fraudulent means.

  • lcpossum

    Oh? And male agents aren’t allowed to replace the female who was waving people through so that she could conduct the pat down? Makes perfect sense.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    If the OP had been a male, then there would have been little excuse to not get an immediate patdown. That said, I wonder if the OP wrote the TSA to complain that there was a shortage of qualified agents to administer a female pat down? The notion that “short staffing” allows a TSA agent to keep someone waiting due to a gender policy sounds like bad planning/management on the part of the head agent at the desk.

    Something like this happens? GET NAMES. If they’re wearing their ID’s out where you can see them, quietly note the name of the at least one of the agents. Get the screening location down in your head and time so that the schedule can be referred to later by management. Then get out of there and WRITE A LETTER.

    If you’re not happy with the response? Then ESCALATE. Write to their manager or director if you can find it. Can’t find anyone? Then write your congress person’s office. State that the TSA is effectively nullifying the policy by claiming staff shortages.

    Hmmm, this sounds pretty familiar such as, say, the VA crisis. That was supposedly caused by a “funding shortage”. IRS losing emails? Not enough money for IT. Can any of us use “funding shortages” to say we couldn’t afford to bring our ID to the airport? If they have a legitimate funding shortage, it’s THEIR duty and obligation to bring it to the attention of their superiors rather than tolerating a crisis.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    Query: What official complaints did you make? Just a note to the contacts section in the TSA website? Did you get a response?

    If I was traveling that often and dealing with this, I’d check tracking numbers to see if my complaint got an official response. I’d have names. I’d be sending notes to my congressman. And then from there, to the local media with a note CC’d to the congressman and TSA.

  • sunshipballoons

    Right. I totally don’t doubt that retaliatory responses to opt-outs happen. I just doubt that they happen so often as to render the opt-out system a scam.

  • MissFitz88

    Thank you for changing the pictures back Chris. Your site looks fantastic.

  • emanon256

    Each time I sent both an e-mail and a written letter citing airport, checkpoint, lane, names of those I was able to get, time and dates etc. I typically got the exact same form response each time.

  • EvilEmpryss

    Really?!? I didn’t know that! I’m disabled and honestly *can’t* raise one of my arms over my head. I opt out as a matter of course, but this would make it a “legitimate” reason and I wouldn’t be seen as a troublemaker. Well, I would hope not, at least. It’s sad that people exercising their lawful choice are considered troublemakers. :(

  • shannonfla

    Exactly. One TSA agent asked me why I opted out and was it because of the machines because they’re totally safe. I think she was surprised when I replied that I believe it goes against the 4th amendment

  • shannonfla

    Also, I’m a little confused that this lady says she went through metal detector after it took too long to get an agent to do pat down. One time when I was waiting long it was getting very close to boarding time. I said I would just go through the machine but an agent told me that is not allowed once you elect for a pat down. Is this another case of TSA agents not all knowing the rules which is known to happen, or does something not add up in the OP story?

  • shannonfla

    I object to unreasonable searches, and like CE states, the machines aren’t 100% proven, as evidenced by earlier machines which produced basically nude photos, even if your privacy was supposedly protected. As if!

  • shannonfla

    It’s fishy to me that she says she gets to go through AIT after electing a pat down, which I was told by TSA agent when it was getting late to make my plane isn’t allowed once you elect pat down.

  • llandyw

    I had a trip back in November from ATL to Austin. On the way out, had precheck and went through the metal detector. On the way back however, no such luck (with some new rules, I’ll always get precheck from now on). Anyway, I did opt out. I don’t think I was waiting more than 5 minutes before they had someone come to do the pat-down.

    I think it has a lot to do with the people working the airport. Some are fine with opt-outs, others not so good.

    Then again, I had over 2 hours before boarding, so maybe they thought keeping me waiting wouldn’t change my opting out.

  • Cybrsk8r

    But it isn’t. If you think the scanners are totally safe, Perhaps you could answer this one question. The nuclear science departments of about a half dozen universities offered to do impartial measurements of the radiation exposure. Every single request was turned down. Why?

  • sirwired

    Yes, I can answer that one question! Thanks for asking!

    I can guess they offered to do impartial measurements of the now-discontinued x-ray backscatter machines which are no longer in use. A nuclear medicine department (which only deals with ionizing radiation, such as x-rays or gamma rays, with a wavelength measured in NANO (10 -9) meters and below) would not have the equipment to measure the emissions from MILLI (10 -3) meter-wave machines that are currently in use; that would probably be the Electrical Engineering dept., who would use such equipment to check antenna performance for wireless communication gear.

    Because those frequencies do not effect tissue (other than to measurably heat it if you use very high wattage), milimeter-wave-type equipment is useless in nuclear medicine (the frequency is too low); if you need to look at the skin, you ask the patient to take off their clothes (although I suppose if you were really shy in front of your doctor, you could ask for a trip to the airport :-) These frequencies ARE used in medicine, but they aren’t used by the nuclear medicine dept.; they are used by plain ‘ol surgeons, which take advantage of their heating ability (and non-penetration of tissue) and use it in electrosurgery equipment to cauterize blood vessels via simple heat. I think if the TSA was using wattages that high, somebody would notice when sparks started flying from their earrings during a scan like somebody putting a fork in the microwave.

    To give you a sense of scale here… millimeter-wave EMF is at the high-end of the radio spectrum, just short of infra-red; ionizing radiation (which starts at high UV) is 3-4 whole orders of magnitude away on the spectrum (on the whole other side of visible light). Doctors generally work 6 orders of magnitude away.

    Again; this is basic 2nd-semester Intro to Physics here (and I think they went over quite a bit of this in high school too)… just because the TSA buys machines that emit it, millimeter-length EM radiation does not magically ionize tissue that normally requires radiation on the OTHER side of the visible spectrum. As in; a 1W LED flashlight from Dollar Tree emits radiation several orders of magnitude MORE penetrating than anything the TSA can dish out.

  • Jane

    I try to stand as far from the machine as possible (inverse square rule, after all). If I think they are keeping me waiting, I talk to the other passengers. “Oh, go ahead into the radiation machine. I’m waiting here to be groped.” I try to say it fairly loudly. When they try to talk to me about the radiation, I cite a paper from the University of California about their concern about all radiation going to the skin, and express my concern that the TSA agents here aren’t wearing dosimeters like the radiologist do, so they know what dosage they’re taking from outside the machine. I’m not sure whether or not it helps but it passes the time.

  • Mairi

    What is with you people who are certain everyone employed by the TSA wakes up every morning thinking of nothing but your nekked butt?

  • AUSSIEtraveller

    The whole TSA is one big joke. Someone is making billions out of it & it does absolutely positively NOTHING for security.
    If a terrorist wants to take down a plane, it’s incredibly easy & they don’t have to go into an airport to do it.

  • jim6555

    I’ve never been pressured by a TSA agent to go through a scanner. Each time that I’ve opted out, I have been treated courteously and have been groped without delay. Had the question dealt with scanners themselves being part of the scam to make you think that the TSA charade at the airport is keeping you safe, I would have answered “yes”.

  • TestJeff Pierce

    What is with you people who are certain everyone employed by the TSA is keeping you safe by criminally touching people in wheelchairs?

  • TestJeff Pierce

    Technically, the GeTSApo may use a different gender agent ,if short-staffed, for the criminal touching pat downs.

    I have often wondered why they didn’t offer female agents for gay men (and vice-versa for gay women) who might feel uncomfortable – the main reason the GeTSApo claims they do same-gender agents for its criminal touching pat downs if at all possible.

  • TestJeff Pierce

    The scanners are almost as harmless as not using them, since it has been over 52 years – that is HALF A CENTURY – since the last fatality caused by a passenger with a working non-metallic bomb (sole reason for scanners and criminal pat downs) on a US domestic flight.

  • TestJeff Pierce

    By the definition, I would agree that purposely increasing a wait time becomes a deceptive act.

  • TestJeff Pierce

    Simply put: No one in government gives a crap.

    Congress doesn’t. The President doesn’t – he laughed about “pat downs” in his 2011 State of the Union speech. The GeTSApo certainly doesn’t care. Scalia (of the Supreme Court) doesn’t care based on his recent statement that “we put up with airport security” as a defense of certain searches. Many scared, apologist citizens don’t care.

    Unconstitutional scanners still exist and criminal touching pat downs exist, even though breast cancer patients and dying cancer victims have been assaulted, as has a quadriplegic war veteran.

    Your suggestions are the obvious thing to do, and should be done, but it won’t change anything. Osama Bin Laden’s victory created the country of Homeland – a fearful place, filled with many gutless people. I have doubts that Americans can reclaim their country.

  • TestJeff Pierce

    Nothing like profiling those with a medical condition for criminal touching pat downs.

    Here’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: The government increases healthcare, more people get medical procedures which causes more medical conditions, so more passengers can get coercive criminal touching pat downs. Because, you know, that is what we do in free countries.

  • RonBonner

    There are numerous scams involving TSA.

    TSA’s use of twisted or just plain not true statements. If TSA said it i’ts probably a lie.

    TSA dressing up the screener force in fake cop like uniforms complete with fake cop badges. TSA screeners have no police powers.

    The disposal of items deemed so dangerous that they can’t go beyond the checkpoint but safe enough to toss into common trash bins right at the checkpoint. Is that how you would handle potential explosives?

    TSA’s Behavior Detection Officers who have been proven by GAO to do no better than a group of people guessing.

    Perhaps one of the biggest scams is how TSA electronically strip searches, gropes, and otherwise unjustly harasses travelers while allowing airport workers to waltz right in without any security screening of any kind.

    I suggest that TSA is a SCAM!

  • DavidYoung2

    What? Your comments about equating Americans doing a job you don’t like with the gestapo, and your comments about gays, is absolutely disgusting.

  • IGoEverywhere

    You and I both agree that the Government does not care enough on what TSA does to travelers. It “is” my right to enjoy travel, but I have to take a Valium to get calmed down for TSA’s overly aggressive agents. It would be so nice to have a contant program.

  • Mairi

    What does that have to do with the obsession that everyone is just dying to see and grope our naked bodies? Whatever you think of the role of the TSA, I bet very few of their employees get excited about spending all day looking at the the average American’s saggy backside.

  • Judy Serie Nagy

    I think that the people who want to debate the definition of the word “scam” don’t have enough to do.

  • Stereoknob

    Didn’t say TSA but thanks for putting those words in there for me.

  • TestJeff Pierce

    1) The TSA shares a characteristic with the similar-sounding organization from the 1930s and 1940s. Both are responsible for protecting the domestic territory from foreign agents. They share the same mission. Heck, today they are part of “Homeland” security which is eerily similar to protecting the “Fatherland”.

    2) I was commenting in favor of gay passengers, who are discriminated against by only getting same-gender pat downs no matter how uncomfortable they may feel about the screener. The reason heterosexuals get an opposite gender patdown is that some passengers may feel uncomfortable being touched on their private parts by someone who may have a sexual arousal from touching the passenger. And

    A gay passenger may not know if their screener is gay, but they may have less concern from a straight or gay opposite sex screener.

  • BMG4ME

    The second question is a scam because today the title was accurate and your heading was not a scam so the second question did not have an accurate answer! Anyway yes it is a scam because it’s not opting out, it’s opting in to disrespectful treatment. Thankfully I don’t have to deal that any more now that I have opted in to TSA Pre.