Why I still opt-out at airports


(Update: I don’t need to opt-out anymore because I have NEXUS.)

In response to the terror attacks of 2001, airport security came under intense scrutiny. In the US, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was formed, which was mandated to make us safer, but without any realistic way of doing this. Instead we got what the great Bruce Schneier calls “security theater“, where we all go through motions that claim to make us more secure, but in actuality do no such thing.

Get in the queue

In the security line, we’ve long had to walk through some sort of device. I don’t know exactly when we started having to go through metal detectors at airports, but a few years ago, the TSA brought out these “backscatter x-ray” machines, where a picture of you which can (theoretically) detect if you are bringing metal (or other contraband) on board.

For various reasons that I’ve never been able to figure out, when these machines were put into place, we as flyers were given the option to “opt-out,” where we can choose not to go through the machine. Instead, we are whisked to a side area, and given a personal pat-down by a blue-gloved TSA officer. They reach into your waist band, push their hand up between your legs until they “hit resistance,” and (inadvertently) teach you about which parts of your body are ticklish.

Privacy advocates howled at the “naked images” that were being taken of people. This coalesced into “National Opt-Out Day,” a day of protest where we were instructed to not fly, or, if we had to fly, to opt-out of the scanners.

This day was a bust. People in general, couldn’t be bothered and, with the stress of the Thanksgiving weekend upon them, just wanted to get where they were going as quickly and easily as possible.

Eventually, however, the protests about the potential invasiveness of the machines made their mark, they were gradually phased out in favor of “millimeter wave” machines, which are equally as untested, but at least don’t put out x-rays (you know, the kind that are known to cause cancer).

It’s pretty much accepted that these machines don’t work. But we keep using them, and people keep acquiescing to going through them.

Opting out?

These days, virtually no one opts-out of these machines, at least in my personal experience.

Except me. I have never been through a machine, x-ray, backscatter, or otherwise. And I don’t plan to.

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  • I don’t trust the machines or what they do with them. Everything I’ve been told says that they don’t take pictures of me or, if they do, that they don’t go anywhere, and are deleted immediately. But they are asking me to take this on faith, and I have no reason to trust them. I also have no reason to trust that they are safe, as the machines were rushed to market and have no long-term testing. It’s probably okay, but how will I know? If I have an option, I will take it.
  • It is a reminder that we have a choice. I’ve always said that I’m not a fan of straight protest, and in general, this is true. But in this case, I think I make a small exception, mainly because the cost to doing so is an extra ten minutes of my time. Ten minutes to remind TSA workers that the whole thing is pointless. Ten minutes to remind other travelers that they have an option. Protest is mainly about awareness, and I think that I’m helping to raise awareness about how silly the situation is. And if not…
  • I get my own space to get my stuff together. Despite have flown an average of 30,000 miles each year for the past few years, I still am not fast through security. I lose things if I move too quickly or get stressed, and I just prefer to take my time. When your stuff gets out of the conveyor, there is usually no good place to reconfigure things (put your liquids back in the bag, put your shoes and coat on, etc.). But when you opt-out, you are taken to your own area. After you are swabbed for any lingering terrorism, the agent leaves you alone at the table. (!) At that point, you can take your time and not be bothered by anyone.
  • Consider it a free massage. I’m joking, of course, but the necessary slowing down actually does end up calming me and keeping me from rushing too fast.

The TSA people are usually nice, if a bit harried, and I’ve never been hassled or made to wait interminably as a form of punishment for opting-out. They usually try and convince me that the new machines are better, but I think they do this just because doing the pat-downs are an annoyance to them. But hey, why should I have all he fun?

I’m in the process of applying for NEXUS, which will get me entry into the Pre-check program. And as I recently learned, a feature of the Pre-check system is that you need only go through a mere metal detector. At that point, I’ll probably just use those lines. But part of me wonders if I’m abdicating some sort of responsibility. And maybe I’ll miss those blue rubber gloves. Actually, maybe not.

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I’ll leave you with this still-relevant informational video:

But enough about me. Do you opt-out at airports? If not, why not?

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