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"Sexytime Pat-Downs," or an Invasion of Privacy?

The statue of liberty being x-rayed.
The statue of liberty being x-rayed.
Danielle Riendeau,
ACLU of Northern California
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August 25, 2010

If you’ve traveled through Boston’s Logan airport lately, you’ll surely have noticed a few changes at the security aisles. Most notably, ominous “naked body scanner” machines now dot each entrance to the gates, and, as was noted in a minor media fury this weekend, more invasive pat-downs are now the norm, rather than the unlucky exception. Even Comedy Central has picked up on the story, satirically condemning the ACLU for opposing “sexytime patdowns at the airport.”

As a frequent flier who has the misfortune of calling Logan my “home” airport, I’ve already had a few encounters with naked scanners and heavy pat-downs. Just a few weeks ago, when traveling to California for the Fourth of July, I first encountered the naked scanner. I was asked to step in, do the requested pose, and step out. I was nervous and unsure about the machines — not only are they a pretty gross invasion of privacy, with the capacity to show a person’s body in startling detail, but questions have also been raised about possible health effects. That’s not something anybody needs, especially not someone who spends a lot of time in the air.

Still, not knowing my rights — and not wanting to be delayed any longer, I complied. And in fact, just before my return flight at San Francisco, I was “naked scanned” again, feeling just as uneasy about it as before.

When I returned, I immediately asked one of my colleagues if I had the right to refuse the machine. The answer was a resounding “yes!” — you’re allowed to opt-out of the screening just before you go in.

So, on my next trip, I firmly (but politely) opted out. Here comes security surprise number two — the more invasive pat-down. After many years of travel, I expected the “usual” pat-down of my arms and legs. Not this time. Two (female) TSA officers stepped over to me, and gave me the new procedure, which included touching my face and hair, and in between and directly under my breasts. Much like a medical appointment, they explained the motions they would make before actually touching me, and both women were professional and polite about the screening — even apologetic about it — but I couldn’t help but think this was overly invasive overkill.

After all, at nearly every other airport in this country, security screening consists of a line of folks walking through a metal detector — and if something actually sets it off, that person gets a pat-down. With the way things are set up at Logan, you’ll either be getting scanned well past the point of your skivvies, or have to get up close and personal with two security guards. That’s probably not the way you want to start your trip — and I have more than a sneaking suspicion that it’s not the most effective way to run good airport security.

In fact, it wasn’t long ago that another potential for abuse came to light — the fact that the scanners are capable of saving and transmitting pictures. That might give you pause if you go in counting on your nude image being quickly erased.

So, the next time you’re traveling through Logan — or McCarran-Las Vegas International Airport, the other airport where the invasive new searches are reportedly being introduced — know that you have the right to opt-out of the naked scanner, and be aware that you can ask to be screened in private. The signs aren’t always there — but your right to privacy certainly still applies.

(Originally posted on Daily Kos.)

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