TSA Success Story

By now, if you haven’t heard the outrage at the TSA’s “enhanced” pat-down procedures, then you don’t use the internet, and you’re not reading this blog.

They grope children. They touch your junk. The procedures are ludicrously ineffective and harmful from a security point of view. And the naked-picture xray machines are most likely unsafe.

Things like this get me feeling all rebellious and Jeffersonian. So, since I’m flying up to Joyent’s Vancouver offices today, I decided to do a little prep work.

First, I took the UCSF letter, added a bit of highlighting and annotation to make it a bit easier to scan, and printed it out. You can get a copy from http://j.mp/cancer-ray.

I was worried that I’d chicken out. No, not “worried”. I was sure I’d chicken out. Of course I would. I talk a good game about incendiary politics and unconventional ideals, but when the chips are down, I generally do the expedient thing like a nice polite citizen. I’m not one of these “talk down the authorities” types, even though I wish I was.

But then my flight was cancelled, and I learned that I’d have to be in the airport until 12 to catch the next one. The extra time to kill strengthened my resolve. “So what if I’m detained?,” I thought. “I don’t have to be anywhere for 5 more hours.” Plus I was alone, so there wasn’t anyone else’s embarrassment to worry about. I repeated the confidence mantras in my head. They’re expendable workers. I own this place. I’m the boss. They work for me. The only reason I don’t fire them is that they’re cheaper than robots. Etc.

I started talking to the family behind me as soon as I got into the security line, a middle-aged couple with 2 adolescent boys and a girl about 4 or 5. They were amused by my shoes, so it wasn’t too hard to strike up a conversation.

I asked where they were from. Santa Clara. Heading to Toronto for some family thing. I asked if they’d heard about the new X-Ray machines. The dad was tired and apathetic. She said, “Oh, yeah, I heard about those on the news, that if you don’t go through, they grope you or something, and if you do, they take a naked picture of you.”

"Yeah, it’s messed up. Did you know that the UCSF oncology department thinks they pose a serious health risk, especially to children or anyone at risk for breast cancer?"

"Whoa, no, I didn’t know that!"

I handed the paper to the mom. Bam.

"Oh, honey, you should read this!! … Oh my god…"

Turns out she’s a breast cancer survivor. And her doctor has told her to avoid x-rays, even at the dentist, unless absolutely medically necessary. And she didn’t realize that “millimeter wave digital backscatter detection” used x-rays, because the TSA doesn’t actually put that on the sign.

She did the rest.

When we got to the scanner, I opted out. Then they opted out. She’d already convinced the family behind them to do the same. Her response to the TSA agent was awesome, I wish I’d thought of it:

"Ma’am, please step over here."

"No thanks, I’ve already had cancer, just feel me up or whatever."

After the first 4 “OPT-OUT” calls, they just passed us all through the regular metal detector. No one got groped.

Information, properly delivered, is power.


Addendum The revolt was emotionally satisfying, and I totally recommend doing it, but ultimately it’s only a drop in the ocean. From where I’m sitting, I can see the security line, people holding their hands up in the little booth.

So, do make trouble. On-the-ground rebellion is important. But also tell your legislator. There’s a senate oversight meeting tomorrow, so please call these people and tell them how you feel.

You’ll leave a voicemail. It’s easy and takes 2 seconds. Just call up and say “I think that the TSA has gone too far. Body scanning and inappropriate groping are unconstitutional and wrong. If you want my vote, change the policy.”


Addendum 2 Millimeter wave scanners and Backscatter X-Rays are not the same thing. But it wasn’t clear which one was in use, and the TSA sign used the terms interchangeably in the fine print where it told you about the opt-out option.

Also, yes, it’s true, the cancer risks are not well understood, and I absolutely committed the alarmist fallacy. (“But can you really take that risk!”) Unfortunately, people aren’t as afraid of a police state as they are of cancer. I maintain that I used my powers for Good.

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