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Terrorism, full body scans, condoms and how one TSA screener humiliated me

A few months ago I went through security at Philadelphia International Airport for a flight to Memphis. Something in my bag didn’t look right to the X-ray scanners, so it was pulled off the conveyor and I was summoned to a side table, where a TSA employee opened up my luggage and started to sift through my belongings.

Sure enough, among those belongings: A pack of condoms. I’m a little embarrassed to mention this publicly; when it comes to sex I still retain a bit of modesty. And I still get teen-style heebie jeebies trying to purchase prophylactics at a local drug store. But I’m even more interested in not fathering another child. Which is why the condoms were in my bag.

I do not remember, at this date, specifically what the TSA screener said. What I do remember is that he pulled the condoms out, giggled, made a couple of jokes about them to me — and waved them at another screener nearby while making another joke. It was, all in all, mildly humiliating. It was certainly unprofessional on the part of the TSA screener. And as far as I know, none of it served any security purpose.

I wouldn’t tell this story, except that the failed Christmas Day Crotch Bombing has revived interest in placing full body scanners at every airport. At the risk of oversimplifying, the technology would allow TSA screeners to peer through your clothing to see if you’re carrying any weapons — and, incidentally, how much (ahem) you’re packing. It’s like having the X-Ray glasses every teen boy ever dreamed of.

Which is fine with Conor Friedersdorf:

Admittedly, I’m an outlier here: my hatred for lines is such that I’d gladly walk a gauntlet of TSA employees completely naked were it offered as a speedy alternative to arriving at the airport two hours early and standing in line for 45 awful minutes. But don’t the people who are apparently uncomfortable with this get checkups at the doctor? Didn’t they take showers after gym class? Shouldn’t ‘t be far easier for the modest person to stay dressed while passing through a scanner being viewed by a TSA employee they’ll likely never see again? So long as faux-nudity isn’t irrationally fetishized, I don’t understand what the big deal is here.

Here’s the problem: Faux-nudity will be fetishized. Security professionals claim that the virtually-naked images won’t be stored — but does anybody really want to bet the over-under on how long it takes for some of those images to hit some creepy website somewhere?

The problem is that TSA screeners aren’t doctors, who have years of training on how to act professionally and a massive financial incentive to keep their jobs. And airport security isn’t the after-gym shower: In that case you might’ve been naked — but so was everybody else. The vulnerability was roughly equal. Not so in an airport security line.

It’s possible that we’ll decide full-body scans are a necessary tool to deter terrorists. And we will probably adjust. But when I think about the TSA screener who waved my condoms around to his friend, I know that abuse of a full-body scan by TSA screeners isn’t just a possibility — it’s a dead-on certainty.

  1. Full Body Scan | SJR Says: Dec 30 11:10 AM

    [...] Terrorism, Full Body Scans, Condoms And How One TSA Screener A few months ago I went through security at Philadelphia International Airport for a flight to Memphis. Something in my bag didn’t look right to the X-ray. [...]

  2. Full Body Scan Airport | SJR Says: Dec 30 12:08 PM

    [...] Terrorism, Full Body Scans, Condoms And How One TSA Screener Terrorism, full body scans, condoms and how one TSA screener humiliated me. A few months ago I went through security at Philadelphia International Airport for a flight to Memphis. Something in my bag didn’t look right to the X-ray… [...]

  3. KhabaLox Says: Dec 30 12:29 PM

    “Faux-nudity will be fetishized.”

    I have to agree. Rule 34 and 4chan prove you right, Joel.

  4. chris tackett Says: Dec 30 1:27 PM

    Can’t help but wonder how these TSA guys running the scanner will react when they get a celebrity in their line.

  5. Tom Farrell Says: Dec 31 1:59 AM

    It’s my understanding that there are certain materials that the see-through-your-clothes machine can’t penetrate, such as rubber.

    When I have to fly and I think they’re going to use one of those body scanner machines on me, I intend to go to the airport wearing a skin tight latex body suit under my clothes. I suspect a neoprene surf suit should work as well.

    Incidentally, given that TSA hasn’t said anything about using the body scanner only on adults, shouldn’t this imply that the operators should be arrested for kiddie porn if they use it on a child?

  6. Cassie Says: Dec 31 5:03 PM

    I’m apprehensive about the full body scans. I have nothing to hide but I don’t think it’s necessarily the best way to thwart terrorist attacks. So the machines will detect if someone is hiding something in their clothes or attached to their body. Won’t the terrorists just figure out another way to hide chemicals and explosives (body cavities?)?

    As for Conor Friedersdorf’s point of view, I would have to disagree. People have different levels of modesty, and in terms of showering after gym class, you’re expected not to look at others showering. In this situation, the TSA’s job IS to look at you.

    Also, there is no guarantee that full body scans will make the security screening at airports faster. They (advocates, TSA, whomever) may tell you that now, but in reality? We have no way of knowing.

    I’d much rather employ profiling. Not ethnic/racial or religious, but behavioral. If someone acts suspicious, pull them aside for additional screening.

    I don’t mean to criticize the TSA but it’s not exactly like you need a certain level of education or background to become a security screener. So the profiling probably wouldn’t work because you would have to be able to train the workers (and have workers that are actually trainable).

  7. Dan Zee Says: Jan 4 12:41 AM

    I would agree that the body scan pictures will have to be stored in some way. After all, they would need the picture of the scan to provide evidence in court as to why you were pulled out of line and searched. Otherwise you might get the search thrown out and the charges dismissed!

  8. Joel Says: Jan 4 3:10 AM

    >none of it served any security purpose.

    A big part of maintaining security is filling the ranks of enlistedpeople, which in an all-volunteer environment means labor supply must significantly outstrip demand for labor.

    When people make their own reproductive decisions, unemployment might cause them to produce fewer young, poor soldiers-to-be.

  9. Matt Says: Jan 4 4:35 AM

    I’m sorry, but we eventually need to get over this embarrassment. Eventually it’s going to have to become: nudity isn’t a big deal, get over yourself or don’t fly. I’m sure that this will be a slight challenge for our prudish nation, but i’m sure we could all benefit from the growing up it could do us.

  10. fran182 Says: Jan 4 9:10 AM

    Its not the point that its embarassment. The writer (and I agree based on his example) feels that the TSA employees will be incapable of resisting to the temptation of being unprofessional when able to do so with imputnity. Was there any point to waving those condoms around and making a joke? Completely unprofessional. Until passengers have a way to make a complaint to an authority about specific employees these behaviors will continue I think.

  11. Linto Says: Jan 4 10:13 AM

    I don’t really want cancer from the scanning machine. And don’t say it doesn’t cause cancer because they really don’t know.

  12. Ana Says: Jan 4 10:28 AM

    At least you didn’t have a group of TSA people ogling your vibrator and asking what it was.

  13. A Says: Jan 4 10:39 AM

    Just make law that if picture is published then head of security on airport and director of TSA are immediately fired, flagged as sex offenders and forever unable to work on any security job. That way they will make sure system is such that it is impossible to publish the pictures.

  14. fran182 Says: Jan 4 12:30 PM

    A Says – You are a genius – that’s a great idea. I bet it wouldn’t be implemented though.

  15. Wildfire Says: Jan 4 12:50 PM

    Just a thought, perhaps they should employ thousands of illustrators or painters to man the machines, people who are used to looking at the ugly bodies of people we’d rather not see naked on a daily basis, plus we’d know what doesn’t belong pretty quickly! Is TSA hiring artists? They should!

  16. Bill Says: Jan 4 1:06 PM

    The answer for many of us is that we will simply stop traveling to the US. In Canada we prefer to vacation in Cuba where our personal privacy is respected.

  17. PB&J Says: Jan 4 1:29 PM

    So when will we have them at train stations, bus stops and taxi stands?
    Doesn’t it make sense that if they are used for domestic public transportation, that they shouldn’t be restrained to just airplanes.
    How about using them only for inbound international flights only on people of certain nationalities or relgions, oops, PROFILING! We can’t have that!

  18. John Haugeland Says: Jan 4 1:41 PM

    So, it’s not cool for the TSA employee to embarrass you in front of two or three other people, but it is cool for you to return the favor internationally.

    Hypocrisy much?

    It’s a condom. “Oh no, they know I’m not celibate!” Grow up.

    All you really had to do was say “sir, I find that embarrassing, please don’t joke.”

    Instead you ran to your internet wahmbulance.

  19. John Haugeland Says: Jan 4 1:42 PM

    Linto: by that logic, your bed also causes cancer. You take more radiation from the sky in an average five minutes than from one of those scanners. Put the pseudo-science away, please.

  20. Tom L Says: Jan 4 3:00 PM

    @John H. The point is these agents lack the proper training to properly handle this body scan information. This goes almost universally. I once had a TSA agent make a crack about medication I was carrying. She was new and inexperienced and I don’t think she meant it maliciously but you are not in a position to lecture them lest you get further screening and miss your flight.

    What if airport checks also included a scan of your computer for prohibited information would you be comfortable with the screeners having access to this information and disposing of it responsibly? I wouldn’t have that comfort level. (Yes this is a whole new can of worms).

  21. Joel Mathis Says: Jan 4 3:34 PM

    John: If by “ran to my internet wahmbulance” you mean “waited several months, then mentioned it as an example of TSA shortcomings when the news seemed to make it relevant,” you’re correct.

  22. otakucode Says: Jan 4 6:23 PM

    This issue is being improperly misdirected. People who are worried about other people seeing them naked are irrational and immature. What they feel about the situation is ENTIRELY immaterial. This reeks of asking the question backwards, which is how so many odious policies get put in place. We should NOT be asking “Why shouldn’t the TSA use full-body scanners?”. We SHOULD be asking “Why should the TSA use full-body scanners.” There is no justifiable reason. And no ones personal lack of emotional development needs to enter into it. Simply deciding in this case to avoid something like this in order to pander to people wrestling with a personal neurosis over their body and sexuality in general (what harm exactly is done to you if someone looks at an image of your body and has sexual thoughts? None, of course.) is not the solution.

    The fact that there are no reasonable justifications for the expense and increased power in the hands of government funtionaries is reason enough to prohibit the use of full-body scanners. The only security change necessary to prevent another 9/11 style attack was bulletproof cockpit doors. Every single other security step taken has been nothing but a mad powergrab done by people mostly because everyone asks “Why shouldn’t they?” instead of asking “Why SHOULD they?” and demanding a valid, reasonable answer.

  23. Josh Powers Says: Jan 6 2:15 PM

    Joel, I still have to disagree. You were treated unfairly – no doubt. I would have demanded to see the screeners superior and I would have filed a complaint. But really, now – did you suffer any harm? Mild embarrassment doesn’t count, in my opinion.

    But then again, no one says you have to travel with a gross of Magnums.

  24. Woody Says: Jan 17 1:12 AM

    The whole thing is very creepy. But isn’t it just something else we’re going to have to get used to in the post 911 world? Here’s a good take on it:

  25. DLB Says: Feb 8 7:49 AM

    I’m female…
    I don’t care if a female is looking at my image – same as I don’t mind a female patting me down. I heard two males were suspended last year for misusing a full body scanner. I don’t like the idea of images being stored, protecting them from abuse will be difficult.
    Used sensibly and with tight controls, it should be fine.
    I wonder about sanitary and incontinence pads – this man had explosives packed into the crotch of his underpants.
    How can you distinguish between that and something like an incontinence pad?
    Doesn’t bear thinking about…

  26. KarlinPhoenix Says: Feb 16 1:12 AM

    I have to wonder what it will take for our government to perform effective pre-boarding security at the airports. The body-bomb bambinas are on the way and no machine or back-scatter x-ray thingy is going to see the half pound of PETN in their Chi-Chi’s. No passengers will interrupt the application of the syringe that contains the reactive agent, TATP, because the injection will take place in the in-flight lavatory. The aircraft will just be blown out of the sky. The flying Muslims seem to be a protected class of people. That will change AFTER the next incident. They are on the way. There is no defense against the body bomb people who have the explosives surgically inserted. The scanners do not find rectally-stored explosives, either. Without behavioral profiling, we are just moving sand on the beach, not getting anywhere toward a solution.

  27. Foodgrade Says: Mar 8 5:13 PM

    John Haugeland – The point is these screeners will abuse the situation. Another point is the 4th Ammendment has not been repealed. All of this screening is illegal. Also remember when they were touching womens breasts? And what are the hiring requirements for these people? We were lied to; we were told that the scanners could not store data, they can. And you think this will not be abused? Also, please knock off the personal insults, many of us resent that sort of abuse of this board.

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