the right to fly

(Image from

In my post on giving thanks the other day, I briefly alluded to the recent controversy over the new TSA security measures, which (as I understand them) include random screenings using a backscatter x-ray machine, capable of producing images like the one to the right. I want to expand a bit on my thoughts there.

Basically, what it comes down to is that the “miracle of human flight” (as Louis C.K. put it in one of the most insightful commentaries on modern society I’ve ever heard) is not a right. In describing his reasons behind calling for a National Opt-Out Day, its creator (Brian Sodegren) said that he “do[es] not believe the government has a right to see you naked or aggressively touch you just because you bought an airline ticket.” Sure, I’ll agree with that. The government does not get that “right” simply by your decision to purchase a plane ticket. Whether or not the government touches you or sees you naked is your choice; if you don’t like the security measures, you don’t have to fly. BAM! Government infringement on your privacy = solved.

Now, I do think that there are some common sense measures that the TSA could take to improve the process. First, don’t hire jackasses. Second, work on better training for your employees to avoid incidents like the breastfeeding mother who was kept in security and missed her flight despite reading up on the guidelines for traveling with breast milk in advance and being prepared to follow TSA policy, which the employees apparently threw out the window. (According to the TSA blog, this happened over a year ago, not recently like I had thought, so it doesn’t involve the backscatter machines. But still.) But holding up these examples as strikes against the TSA as a whole is akin to disparaging the McDonald’s chain for a bad experience with a cashier. Sometimes, you’re going to get an incompetent employee. That’s part of life.

I also think that some sort of distortion on the images, like that proposed by Dr. Wattenburg at Lawrence Livermore National Labs could be useful in reducing the “perv” factor, along with the physical separation of those viewing the images from those being imaged.

I do think that health concerns are a valid reason to wonder about the backscatter machines, but the FDA claims that the amount of radiation absorbed going through one of these machines is comparable to the amount of radiation we take in from ambient sources every 42 minutes. There has been some push-back on these studies by doctors at UCSF, who would like an additional study by “an impartial panel of experts that would include medical physicists and radiation biologists at which all of the available relevant data is reviewed”. Their complaint seems to be that the existing studies that have been done on this technology are not impartial, as they have been done at the factory (though this factory test was reviewed by independent evaluators at Johns Hopkins) and by the FDA in concert with the TSA. I’m all for additional testing to verify the safety of these machines and alleviate concerns, but both studies so far have shown that they meet the American National Standards Institute’s guidelines on radiation exposure. Kind of makes me wonder if these UCSF doctors demand independent studies of everything that emits radiation and has only shown that it meets ANSI standards…

So yes, let’s do everything we can to improve the behavior of TSA employees, increase the anonymity of these scans, and ensure their safety. But to treat this issue like it’s a huge departure from previous security measures, or some “Big Brother”-esque overreach, is too much. There are other ways to get from point A to point B, if you don’t want someone seeing the outline of your junk or patting you down if you refuse the backscatter machine, I suggest you use them.

Kind of related, kind of not… it’s too bad that this toy is off the market. The comedic potential is amazing.

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