Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Was I Molested By The TSA? Will You Be?

My little groping encounter with the TSA happened 10 days ago. The experience was awkward, weird and unsettling, but having a pretty high tolerance for embarrassing situations helped. My ego more or less intact, I was prepared to suck it up and let it go. But then I read stories like this.

She felt along my waistline, moved behind me, then proceeded to feel both of my buttocks. She reached from behind in the middle of my buttocks towards my vagina area.

She did not tell me that she was going to touch my buttocks, or reach forward to my vagina area.

She then moved in front of my and touched the top and underneath portions of both of my breasts.

She did not tell me that she was going to touch my breasts.

She then felt around my waist. She then moved to the bottoms of my legs.

She then felt my inner thighs and my vagina area, touching both of my labia.

She did not tell me that she was going to touch my vagina area or my labia.

She then told me that I could put my shoes on and I asked if I could pick up the baby, she replied Yes.

She then moved back to my belongings to finish scanning them with the paper discs for explosives. When she finished she said I was free to go.

I stood there holding my baby in shock. I did not move for almost a minute.
And this.

This is a photo of the TSA booth by the security check-in point at Indianapolis International Airport. Take a close look at the wallpaper on the computer in that booth. Nervous yet?

In case you don't recognize the image in the wallpaper, it's this fake children's book cover:

So yeah, it might not be OK for me to suck it up after all. Because even though I could deal with it, maybe the next person subjected to this crap might be a rape or molestation victim, or a cancer survivor who shouldn't have to choose between a quick trip through a machine that could possibly kill them and public humiliation.

So here is my story. If you're reading this, and you have one too, share it. The more people who speak up and shine a light on this the better.

On Sunday, November 6th, I was booked on Virgin America flight 944 from San Francisco to Los Angeles. For some reason, Virgin America is based in SFO's International Terminal, and it was my first time there. I was traveling alone, returning home after a weekend of meet-and-greet with fellow activists at a Netroots California workshop. I traveled light, with just a purse and a small backpack.

After taking off my shoes and jacket, and putting everything on the conveyor belt, I was instructed to empty my pockets and remove all jewelry, which sounded unusual to me. Distracted on my iPhone, I hadn't noticed at first that we were being shuttled towards a full-body scanner. But as soon as I was told to step inside, I realized what it was.

"Is this a full-body scanner?", I asked.

"Yes", the TSA agent answered.

My reaction was immediate. "Oh, no, no, no. I'm not getting in one of these." (translation, the fuck if you're going to see me naked)

I was escorted about 15 feet away. I was not allowed to bring any belongings with me. A 40-ish female TSA agent approached me and asked if I would like to reconsider my decision. I told her no, I did not. She then told me they would need to hand-search my person. Now, at this point, I wasn't worried. Twice in the last few years I've been pulled for random hand-searches. They pat your arms and legs, your outer torso. They wand you. Not a big deal.

I said fine. Search me.

What happened next is the kind of thing they teach small children to run screaming from.

I was not escorted to a private area, nor was I offered that as an option. The agent instructed me to stand with my feel slightly apart, arms outstretched. As she conducted the search, she announced every procedure before making her move. She told me she would run her hands through my hair, down my neck. She announced she would run her hands down the outside of my legs and arms. So far so good.

Then she announced she would run her hands along the inside of my waistband - both back and front. Which she did. In fact, she not only ran her gloved hands along the inside of my waistband, but along the inside of my underwear, reaching far enough down that she brushed my pubic hair. As she ran her hand along my backside, she brushed the tops of my buttocks, again her hand inside my underwear. Then she announced she will need to place her hands between my legs to examine my "groin". She does this. I am grateful she is brief.

At this point I close my eyes and think of England. The agent announces she's going to run her hands under my breasts. Which she does. Thankfully not under my shirt.

And then it's over. As I pick up my stuff to leave, a male TSA agent, who I hadn't noticed before because I was too embarrassed to look past my own nose during the search, smiles at me and waves his hand towards the scanner.

"You could have been on the plane by now." He says.

I leave as fast as I can.

Was I molested by the TSA? I honestly don't know how to answer that. I do know I wasn't fully informed of what was about to happen to me before the search began. But even if I had, I'm not sure I would have made a different choice. There are too many questions about the safety of the full-body scanners for my peace of mind. Plus, there's the niggly bit about what happens to the scanned images once they're taken.

At the heart of the controversy over "body scanners" is a promise: The images of our naked bodies will never be public. U.S. Marshals in a Florida Federal courthouse saved 35,000 images on their scanner. These are those images.

A Gizmodo investigation has revealed 100 of the photographs saved by the Gen 2 millimeter wave scanner from Brijot Imaging Systems, Inc., obtained by a FOIA request after it was recently revealed that U.S. Marshals operating the machine in the Orlando, Florida courthouse had improperly-perhaps illegally-saved images of the scans of public servants and private citizens.

One thing I am sure about though - the new pat-down procedures are designed to be punitive, meant to make the traveler think twice about refusing to submit to a full-body scan a second time.

It doesn't have to be this way. Already people forewarned about full-body scanners and the new TSA pat-down procedures have successfully resisted against both.

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.
Knowledge is power, people. Print these documents out and take them with you the next time you're at the airport.

USCF letter of concern about the cancer risks associated with full-body security scanners: http://j.mp/cancer-ray.

TSA - passenger "bill" of civil rights: http://www.tsa.gov/research/civilrights/civilrights_travelers.shtm

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  1. As someone who flys into the US once or twice a year I don't like reading this at all... If the US wants people like me to come spend money and help their economy they're going about it the wrong way.

  2. I'm so sorry to hear about your experience at SFO. I flew back on Virgin myself and so went through those same TSA gates. I HATED going through that damn scanner and wish I'd refused, to tell you the truth.
    But your experience is horrendous.

  3. Disturbing. I don't see how we get around it -- cancer or molestation - what to chose. what to chose...???

  4. Very Simple, just stop using airlines for transportation. The economy will collapse and there will be no money to fund any of these programs. Or better yet, the TSA should hire defrocked Catholic pedafile Priests and let them really get their grope on.

  5. or...we can allow 9-11 to happen again. It's a small price to pay for security. Travel overseas and you will see German Shepherds and armed Soldiers at the airports.

  6. Uh, you see armed guards and German Shepherds in US airports. As long as their not sniffing my crotch, I'm fine.

  7. I feel safer with dogs and soldiers. I do not feel safe with a potential pervert ogling my naked photo.

  8. Dogs and armed guards don't violate the 4th amendment. I would happy to see them. Being sexually molested by them or being naked in front of them is a different matter.

  9. I think Americans are too prude. Doctors touch patients in even more sensitive ways for their safety, what can't Tsa Agents do the same?

  10. This isn't just an "inconvenience". Wake up. This is an illegal search and would be considered molestation if you were out on a street. I refuse to fly and will continue to refuse until we have stopped this government sanctioned groping. No one even talks about how you can walk through all of this with all your dignity intact if you're wearing a BURKA

  11. Ok. So 9/11 was terrible. It was a true tradgedy. But the fact of the matter is that those guys hijacked the planes with BOX CUTTERS. I for one have accidentally forgotten to remove my pocket knife from my purse and no one noticed. I've also unwittingly carried not one, but two bottles of water through security without anyone noticing, either. I personally think all of this is a load of crap and a ridiculous violation of my person. Oh, and in the Houston airport, I was not given the option to opt out of the screening, and they STILL PATTED ME DOWN AFTERWARDS.

  12. We love traveling by train, and the more people use the trains the more routes they will develop.

  13. "Marta Evry said 'Uh, you see armed guards and German Shepherds in US airports. As long as their not sniffing my crotch, I'm fine.'"
    Dogs will be dogs but really don't want the armed guards sniffing my crotch either. ;-)

  14. How about people get over their fat ass bodies and go through the scanners. NOT a big deal. Not like you got fat in one day. I'm pretty sure you're used to it by now. So is the rest of America.