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.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to the right to fly

  1. TJ Phantom says:

    “Basically, what it comes down to is that the “miracle of human flight”…is not a right.”
    “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.”
    “There are other ways to get from point A to point B”

    I don’t find any of these arguments compelling.

    To the first quotation, plenty of things do not constitute rights in and of themselves, yet that doesn’t grant the government power to invade and supervise the process by which I travel around the country–air, train, car, or otherwise.

    To the second and third, it is disingenuous to suggest that flying has a real set of viable alternatives. If I need to be in San Francisco and Boston in the same week, there is no way to do so but to fly. We can argue about my revealed preferences, given that I continue to fly, but there are only limited sets of circumstances in which there are real transportation alternatives to flying.

    Is this the end of the world? No. There are far larger problems to tackle. I care less because I think this is a transgression of personal liberty; rather, I care because this is meaningless security theater that doesn’t actually make us safer. It’s one thing to argue that certain infractions of privacy are warranted because they “keep us safe,” it’s another to argue that because “it’s not a right,” the US government can do what the hell it wants.

    • frouglas says:

      I appreciate your objections, but let me push back a little.

      Yes, plenty of things do not constitute rights and the lack of a fundamental right does not, in itself, give the government the right to “invade and supervise” the process. But there is a clear government role in protecting its citizens, and that is clearly the intent (we can argue about the effectiveness) of this increased security measure. Does your desire to fly without being monitored trump my desire to feel safe and secure in my own flights?

      And I think it is distinctly NOT disingenuous to suggest that flying has a viable set of alternatives. Let’s say I absolutely NEEDED (for whatever reason) to be in Boston tomorrow. Bing currently shows (if that link continues to work) that airfare between SFO and Boston is $274. What if I can’t afford that? Do I get to demand, because of the lack of a “viable alternative” to flying, that the airline charge me less? Absolutely not.

      I am perfectly willing to discuss whether this is “meaningless security theater” or something that actually makes us safer. But that’s not the (prevailing) argument against these backscatter machines. And I’m certainly not suggesting that because something is not a right, the government can do whatever the hell it wants. But can the government take steps to regulate air travel? Absolutely.

  2. TJ Phantom says:


    1) Yes, but there is a question of degree. I agree that the government has a role in protecting its citizens. Striking the balance between various levels of comfort with respect to airport security is important. I would add that the 4th amendment is germane to this conversation.

    2) It’s not a question of market-clearing prices and whether I can afford it. If the security measures cost enough inasmuch as they violate my principles, I won’t fly, but there is no physical alternative to getting to Boston today. There is a difference between whether I can afford to pay for a flight, and whether the government can unreasonably search me in the process of executing a private transaction.

    3) Again, yes, the government can regulate air travel, but they shouldn’t do so recklessly, without proving the benefits, while at the same time invading my person.

    Finally, the heedless expansion of executive power started by Bush and continued by Obama is a way bigger deal, so do know that I’m keeping this in perspective.

  3. JB says:

    not entirely a productive comment, but related:

  4. tjphantom says:

    following up:

    ‘Monte-Carlo simulation methods were used to propagate these uncertainties in the calculation of benefits, and the minimum attack probability necessary for AITs to be cost-effective was calculated. It was found that, based on mean results, more than one attack every two years would need to originate from U.S. airports for AITs to pass a cost-benefit analysis. In other words, to be cost-effective, AITs every two years would have to disrupt more than one attack effort with body-borne explosives that otherwise would have been successful despite other security measures, terrorist incompetence and amateurishness, and the technical difficulties in setting off a bomb sufficiently destructive to down an airliner. The attack probability needs to exceed 160-330% per year to be 90% certain that AITs are cost-effective.’

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s