Going through the TSA patdown

As a semi-regular traveler I am always interested in the security aspects of it, especially since I started reading Bruce Schneier’s blog. I posted the following in our discussed thread on the AusGamers Forums having just gone through the controversial new TSA security process that involves millimetre wave bodyscans – to which I decided to opt out.

So I am currently sitting in a lounge at LAX on the way back from GDC in SF.

When in SF I was in the line waiting to go through TSA security. I had stacks of time before my flight and there weren’t many people in the line. I could see the TSA magical mwave scanners and all the people dutifully lining up and going through them and getting zapped.

It was amazing, once I was in the line, how fast I had simply acquiesced to the fate that awaited me – that of being scanned, considering that after reading this thread and all the other posts on the Internet had made me certain that, when presented with the opportunity, I would tell the TSA to go fuck themselves and have them scan me. But once you’re in The Line, and trudging slowly along with everyone else, you simply absorb their sheep mentality and just keep putting one foot in front of the other with a view of getting through this process as quickly as painlessly as possible.

Which is, of course, what they’re counting on – your obedience and willingness to submit yourself to this invasive level of security, because the alternative is an even more invasive one that will take longer and probably be a pain in the ass.

Once I realised my transition to sheeple had almost completed, I snapped myself out of it and mentally swore that I would opt out of the scanning and ask for the patdown.

i got to the front of the line, had my stuff going through the x-ray, and told the guy I would like to opt out, adding casually that “I hope this isn’t a pain in the ass” (knowing of course that it definitely was). Looking around though, I could see one TSA guy to my left watching the line and another two guys at the back just talking to each other, so I didn’t think this was a particularly onerous request – the line wasn’t that long and they clearly weren’t very busy as the herd was so docile. The guy responded, with the tinnnnnnnniest air of frustration, that “it takes longer”, to which I just shrugged.

So I was taken aside by the spare guy to my left. I assumed that, given he was standing there doing nothing, he would search me, but he simply herded me into a little fenced off area right next to the scanner and called for a male agent to come over.

I had to wait about 3 or 4 minutes before some guy came over. At no time did they express any interest into why I opted out; the dude just wandered over and walked me through the process very clearly, politely and succinctly, explaining exactly what he was going to be doing (“I’ll be running my hands up and down blah blah blah”).

He offered me a private room, but I declined, deciding that if I was going to get The Patdown, I would prefer to do it in front of everyone, both to remind them of the option, and also because I hoped (no doubt vainly) that it would perhaps encourage others not to so meekly submit to the whims of the TSA.

The search took probably no more than about another 3-4 minutes. At the end of it I decided that at no point did I ever feel like the guy was grasping any part of my genitals or trying to incite a tickle-frenzy; it was like a very polite masseur simply running his hands over most of my body.

The best part was at the end – he invited me to sit down, then ran his hands over the tops of my (shoe-less) feet. While he swabbed his gloves and ran the results through a scanner (presumably checking for explosives, drugs, or other things Americans don’t like much, like liberty, freedom, medical care for citizens, etc), I asked him if he was going to check the soles of my feet. He said no, to which I just shrugged acceptance, and then another TSA dude who had been watching the tail end of the proceedings said “no, we don’t do that any more because the TSA decided feet are dirty”.

I laughed dutifully thinking this was a hilarious joke made by the TSA at their own expense. Neither of the two guys laughed; the other just nodded and said “yeh, that’s right”, to which I choked down my laughter and just started staring depressed at the floor at the obvious security theatre that was going on around me – regardless of the truth of that statement.

I certainly feel like applying this level of security to every individual is an utter waste of time. While I was waiting in my little fenced off possible-terrorist-suspect area, I witnessed a dude breeze straight through the security check – a fellow passenger who wasn’t subject to the screenings or the pat-down, presumably some sort of frequent flier who had a first-class pass that entitled him to only cursory inspection walking through a metal detector. So presumably, if you were a real criminal or terrorist, you would just find out what mechanic they use (Google informs me that it’s probably CLEAR) and employ that to skip the onerous security checks.

Of course, that attack vector has long considered as boring and pointless by some security experts, who think that the two biggest improvements to flyer security since 9/11 have been the reinforced cockpit doors and the new passenger knowledge that if they need to act to subdue miscreants or else their lives are almost certainly lost.

So I certainly felt irritated by the process. All the agents that I dealt with were utterly, implacably polite and professional. Again, they were not very busy; there were not hordes of conscientious objectors like me fucking up their day, so they could take the time to have a relaxed approach – or maybe they’re just always like that at SFO because they hire a better class of citizen to help protect their airways, or something.

Anyway, that’s my story. I am not sure if I would do it again – it was almost creepy how strong the urge to “just do what everyone else is doing” was. But I think it’s important that people take a stand on security like this so that the focus can be shifted to mechanisms that really work and actually contribute to the security of all, instead of merely providing an appearance of security.