Monday, November 22, 2010

Show Me on the Doll Where the TSA Touched You

As you have no doubt already heard, the Transportation Safety Administration has implemented new screening technology (AIT) that all air travelers will have to deal with this holiday season if they wish to spend time with loved ones far from home. Unfortunately for parents, this means they have to decide whether to let a stranger see under their child's clothing using relatively new, potentially dangerous technology, or to let a different stranger rub their hands all over their child's body. Neither option sounds particularly appealing to me, which makes me glad we'll be staying close to home.

I did, however, wonder exactly what would happen if I were traveling with my son this year. After doing some research on the new security procedures, I must say I don't envy parents who are put in the position of having to decide which screening option is "right" for their children. Hopefully the answers to the following questions will help people to make informed decisions for their families at the airport.

What is AIT?

AIT stands for Advanced Imaging Technology. It's a type of X-Ray scan that detects both metallic and non-metallic threats using "backscatter" technology, which projects an ionizing energy beam over the body's surface at high speed, then creates a digitized image that resembles a "chalk-etching". This image is viewed remotely by a TSA agent who scans the image for weapons and contraband before deleting it permanently.

Is there an AIT machine in my airport?

Possibly, if you are flying out of one of the following 68 locations:
  • Albuquerque International Sunport Airport
  • Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport
  • Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport
  • Boston Logan International
  • Bush Houston Intercontinental Airport
  • Boise Airport
  • Bradley International Airport
  • Brownsville
  • Buffalo Niagara International Airport
  • Charlotte Douglas International
  • Chicago O'Hare International
  • Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International
  • Cleveland International Airport
  • Corpus Christie Airport
  • Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport
  • Denver International Airport
  • Detroit Metro Airport
  • Dulles International Airport
  • El Paso International Airport
  • Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International
  • Fort Wayne International Airport
  • Fresno Airport
  • Gulfport International Airport
  • Grand Rapids Airport
  • Harrisburg International Airport
  • Harlingen/Valley International Airport
  • Honolulu International Airport
  • Indianapolis International Airport
  • Jacksonville International Airport
  • John F. Kennedy International Airport
  • Kansas City International
  • LaGuardia International Airport
  • Lambert/St. Louis International Airport
  • Laredo International Airport
  • Lihue Airport
  • Los Angeles International
  • Luis Munoz Marin International Airport
  • McAllen Miller Airport
  • McCarran International Airport
  • Memphis International Airport
  • Miami International Airport
  • General Mitchell Milwaukee International Airport
  • Mineta San José International
  • Minneapolis/St.Paul International Airport
  • Nashville International Airport
  • Newark Liberty International Airport
  • Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport
  • Oakland International Airport
  • Omaha Eppley Field Airport
  • Orlando International Airport
  • Palm Beach International Airport
  • Philadelphia International Airport
  • Phoenix International Airport
  • Pittsburgh International Airport
  • Port Columbus International
  • Raleigh-Durham International Airport
  • Richmond International Airport
  • Rochester International Airport
  • Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport
  • Salt Lake City International Airport
  • San Antonio International Airport
  • San Diego International Airport
  • San Francisco International Airport
  • Seattle-Tacoma International Airport
  • Spokane International Airport
  • T.F. Green Airport
  • Tampa International Airport
  • Tulsa International Airport

Do my children have to get scanned?

All passengers, including children who are old enough to stand in one place for a few seconds while holding their arms out to their sides, are expected to submit to AIT screening. You have the right to refuse on your child's behalf (and for yourself) but that means you and your child will be pulled aside for alternative screening, which includes a physical pat-down. Infants and toddlers too young for the AIT will be subject to a pat-down, as well.

Is AIT safe? 

It depends on who you ask. The TSA's position is an unequivocal "yes". Backscatter technology has been evaluated by the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health (CDRH), the National Institute for Standards and Technology, and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. According to these sources, it produces exposure equivalent to two minutes of flying on an airplane, and the energy projected by it is thousands of times less than that of a cell phone transmission. In other words, passengers have absolutely nothing to worry about.

Not so fast, say critics. Earlier this year, professors at the University of California, San Francisco, led by John Sedat, a Professor Emeritus in Biochemistry and Biophysics, sent a letter to the Food and Drug Administration raising safety questions about using back-scatter X-ray with such frequency. According to the letter:

The physics of these X-rays is very telling: the X-rays are Compton-Scattering off outer molecule bonding electrons and thus inelastic (likely breaking bonds). Unlike other scanners, these new devices operate at relatively low beam energies (28keV). The majority of their energy is delivered to the skin and the underlying tissue. Thus, while the dose would be safe if it were distributed throughout the volume of the entire body, the dose to the skin may be dangerously high.

Compton-Scattering (which is not nearly as badass as it sounds) is particularly of concern for elderly travelers, the fraction of the female population who are genetically susceptible to breast cancer, and immunocompromised individuals such as HIV and cancer patients. Dr.Sedat also raises concerns about the risks to children and adolescents, the effects on pregnant women and their unborn children, possible mutagenesis of men's sperm, and effects of the radiation on the cornea and thymus, none of which has been thoroughly studied. 

The FDA has since responded to these claims with a densely worded letter of their own. Maybe it would help alleviate some of these fears, were it not written in borderline-incomprehensible technical jargon.  Maybe Dr.Sedat and his colleagues are mollified by the FDA's response, but a layperson such as myself is left scratching her head.

How much of my child's body will the screener be able to see?

According to the TSA website, passenger privacy and anonymity are strictly protected. Millimeter wave technology blurs all facial features and backscatter technology has an algorithm applied to the entire image to create a "privacy filter." They even include helpful pictures to show that an image of a naked body will look freakish and alien rather than erotic or appealing. The TSA assures us that these weird images are promptly deleted without a trace; in fact, the AIT machines currently in use at airports don't even possess the capacity to store or print images. As for agents in screening rooms who are equipped with cell-phone cameras, we'll just have to trust that they maintain the rigorous ethical standards the TSA insists they are trained to have.

What does the alternative screening entail?

You and your child will be moved to a screening area (you can request a separate, private room) where a TSA agent of the same gender as your child will give him or her a thorough pat-down. How thorough? Unfortunately, the TSA website doesn't specify whether or not the agent's hand will actually be placed between your child's legs. They assure us that no clothing will be removed, though the child's waistband will be checked to ensure that you or anyone else who may have had access to your kid's Underoos have not rigged them with plastic explosives. At no point will the child be alone with the agent doing the pat-down.

But it makes us safer, right?

Actually, even if you factor in all the deaths on September 11th, your odds of dying in a terrorist attack on a plane are a staggeringly low 1 in 13 million, and that's without intrusive screening procedures. You and your family are far more likely to get killed or injured on the highway, yet we feel perfectly safe going on long road trips.

Also, the scanners are not all they're cracked up to be. According to an article by BBC news, AIT scanners would be "unlikely" to detect many of the explosive devices typically used by terrorist groups. They also are unable to detect items stashed in body cavities.

So what the hell should I do?

Personally, I would be willing to tolerate the risk and indignity of the AIT for myself due to issues I have with strangers touching me. But I definitely would not allow my son to be exposed to potentially harmful Compton-Scatter rays, particularly given my family history of skin cancer. This means I would have to consent to let a stranger to feel my child's privates through his clothes. I think I would have a very difficult time not mouthing off to the agent whose hands are all over my kid, and I'm sure many harried parents will have to struggle with this impulse, as well. While it's tempting to take a stand and make a scene in the airport, most people have places to go and people to see and don't want to start their trip with an unpleasant (and likely futile) confrontation.

In lieu of outright protest, I would use this as a teaching opportunity for my child. If he were old enough to understand, I would explain to him (beforehand, so we didn't end up in a locked room surrounded by hostile TSA agents) that we were about to have to compromise of our values in order to see Grandma this year. I would tell him that having to make choices like these shows us what happens when fear wins out over common sense, and when law and security are placed above dignity and respect. I would encourage him to ask the agent any questions that occur to him during the screening and to say "No," loudly and firmly if the touches felt wrong in any way. And I would document everything. Video if possible, but photos would do in a pinch. Anyone who touches kids inappropriately, regardless of the context, deserves to be exposed.

We may not have much power once we enter the airport, but we still have some. We can use our technology to shame the TSA by posting their behavior online for the world to seeWe can make sure our kids don't grow up thinking that these sorts of experiences are normal and acceptable. We can support lawmakers who are fighting to keep the TSA's powers in check. In the meantime, we just have to do what we've always done: make the best possible decisions for our families based on the information we have.

Safe and happy travels to all.

Addendum: What you should know about filming the TSA.