The civil liberties price of air travel

Jan 22, 2012 The civil liberties price of air travel


Bill of Rights (from the public domain)

Off come the shoes. Out come the lotions. Then come the line for those randomly-selected for a choice of invasive x-rays or invasive patdowns, and the line for those listed for always requiring enhanced security screening. That is what awaits people departing domestically and internationally from airports in the United States. On the way back to the United States from international departure sites, one’s laptop and smartphone are at the mercy of seizure and review by U.S. authorities, so it is important to find a way to encrypt data on both, or else to erase the data and to find a way to get any new data to yourself securely for instance by secure Internet uploading.

Yes, one could drive to avoid such airport indignities, but a car does not cross the Atlantic or Pacific, and U.S. Border Patrol stops — often well inland from the border — can be unpleasant. Train travel does not eliminate security checkpoints. Passenger ships across the Atlantic and Pacific are likely few or non-existent. Did George Orwell have any idea that his 1984 barely scratched the surface of then-approaching governmental incursions on individuals’ privacy?

Are we really any safer or much safer with such increased invasions of privacy, or have those wanting to bring down the U.S. government and U.S. society simply made the United States government into an agent for scuttling civil liberties, in the name of stopping terror?

It seems that earlier this month was the first time I flew since the enhanced airport x-rays and patdowns came into play in the United States. Leaving Dulles airport for a great vacation, I dodged both. On the way back from Kaua’i Airport, I previously had seen there were no enhanced x-ray machines, the ones that the Transportation Security Administration seems to claim now do not reveal one’s genitals to the screeners. Nevertheless, I beeped when going through the x-ray machine. A TSA officer told me that an algorithm program had randomly selected me for a further screening, which mainly involved a thorough patdown, right down to latex hands checking whether I was hiding anything inside my socks.

In airports with the invasive x-ray machines, it appears that the x-ray machine is the default enhanced screening mechanism unless the traveler opts for a patdown. Neither are nice choices

I at least give the TSA officer credit for very politely and professionally carrying out a task that hopefully many TSA officers find unpleasant. I have no basis of comparison to know whether the officer’s kindness was unique to him, to the positive island spirit, or to anything good the TSA is doing in selecting, training, supervising, and evaluating TSA officers at this airport or at all of them.

The TSA officer offered me the option to be patted down in private. I opted not do it in private, both wanting to get to my terminal, and not sure whether a private screening would invite more invasiveness than the thorough frisk that he described was coming. I could have left the airport and declined enhanced screening. Would that have put me permanently on an enhanced screening list? I felt no choice in the matter. I had my family to fly with. I had clients to attend to, including a full trial calendar for the rest of the week. Again and again, people submit to searches and interviews with law enforcement in the hopes of catching a plane and getting to other appointments. Beware giving up your rights so quickly. We know that by flying we might get an invasive search, but beware giving up your rights to privacy and silence in any other situation.

The TSA officer told me what parts of my body he was going to run his hands down. I do not know if it is then-mere-exhaustion from jetlag or a long, cramped redeye flight that make me not recall how close or not the patdown got to my genitals, or maybe just speed near that area by the agent. It was nevertheless invasive and unpleasant.

I nevertheless did like everything about the searching TSA officer’s demeanor, other than being patted down. I wish all law enforcement officers would always be as professional and courteous, humanizing the people they deal with.

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