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My Experience With the Enhanced Pat Down

I flew from EWR (Newark) to YTZ (Toronto Downtown Airport) on December 13, 2010. They had the millimeter wave scanners and were requiring almost everyone to go through them. Before I went to the airport, I had decided that if I was asked to use one of the new scanners, I would opt out, as was my right, due to both health and safety concerns as well as my desire to have complete control of any naked pictures taken of me, as is my right. This is my story doing such.

Note that this is simply MY story. I'm not stating that anyone else's story is inaccurate. I'm just giving people more data so that they could be informed. I also realize I'm writing this part of this almost 10 days later and the other part more than a month later. I intentionally made sure I was paying attention to my experiences when they were happening, I went over my experiences in the plane, and I already told this entire story to my partner on the day of my flight so that I wouldn't forget any of the details. I'm confident I'm remembering everything accurately.

As I approached the security area, I was carefully watching to see what scanner people were being asked to go through. Almost everyone was being asked to use the millimeter wave scanners. The only person I saw who didn't was an elderly woman who was in a wheelchair… she went through the old-style typical metal detectors. I saw TSA signs that explained the new scanners and they did, indeed, state at the bottom that those scanners were optional. I must admit, I knew what was going to happen, and I was afraid, but I was trying to not let my fear show externally, because I didn't want to give the TSA any reason to suspect me, as I already knew that opting out would be suspicious enough. In fact, that day I decided to wear non-baggy clothing (as wearing baggy clothing & extra layers had got me extra scans in the past) that looked very "normal"… I wore a turtleneck with a snowflake design and well fitting blue jeans instead of my usual baggy cargo pants.

As I got to security, I showed my passport and boarding pass, and put my coat, boots, electronics, backpack and all other things in my pocket in the bins to go through the scanner. After doing this, when it was my turn to be scanned, I was directed to go through the millimeter wave scanner. Even though I was trying to keep myself from shaking, I stated "I'd like to opt out, please."

The security guard shouted to the back "We've got a female opt-out." and instructed me to stand to the side. Wanting to not rock the boat any more than just exercising my rights and having heard horror stories, I was as polite as possible through the entire process and broke out the "yes, ma'am"s and "no, ma'am"s. After a minute or 2, a female guard (think your stereotypical butch lesbian looking security guard) asked me to come with her. I followed past the scanner and she told me to stand at a certain point and wait. I did. I told her that I would feel the most comfortable if my scan took place in public view. I wanted all the other passengers in line to see my experiences as well as I figured my chance of inappropriate touching/behavior/conduct on their behalf would go down if it was in full view of others. At this point, we were waiting on my stuff to come out of the scanner, although I didn't really realize that's what was going on at the time. They were asking me about stuff about which of the bins coming out had my things. I think some of my bins were held back to be rescanned because they weren't coming out in the order I put them in.

After the guard grabbed all my bins (having to get a 2nd female guard to help because I had like 4 bins, what with my coat, laptop, backpack, boots and all), they started taking me into a private room. I was REALLY scared at this point, thinking I didn't have the option of having a public scanning. As we got into the room, the first guard asked me "So what have you heard about our scanners?" I felt really intimidated although I'm pretty sure she wasn't trying to intimidate me. I told her about the possible health risks and she tried to tell me it was bunk. I then reasserted that I still didn't want to take the risks and she said something along the lines of "Oh, no, that's fine. You're asserting your rights and that's ok." If I wasn't so scared I would have been able to quote the statistics more accurately and, moreover, I would have said something about how I wish to control access any and all naked pictures taken of me. After the 2nd guard came in, I stated again how I wished to have the pat-down in public. Apparently they misheard me and thought that I requested to NOT have it in public. We all did a lot of apologizing and they brought me and my things back out to the public scanning area.

I was instructed to stand on a mat with my arms spread and my feet spread apart. Before the pat-down, the security guard told me that she was going to be patting me down head to toe. She also said that she'd pat me down with the back of her hand on any "sensitive areas" and that she'd let me know before she patted down any "sensitive areas". I'm not sure if she patted me down with the front or the back of her hands for the "non-sensitive areas". She then ran her hands down my hair and head, down the top part of my chest, warned me that she was about to touch a "sensitive area", used the back of her hand to pat me under my breasts (but did NOT lift my breasts to make sure she covered the entire area), patted down my back and arms, went down to my feet and started to go up my legs, at about my knees warned me that she was about to touch another "sensitive area", and ran the back of her hands up my thighs to where my thighs meet, which is about half way up (but did NOT go any further to touch the insides of my thighs or the bottom part of my vulva). I believe she also went over my hips and buttocks, but I don't remember that. She did not reach into my underwear at any time. I'm pretty sure she didn't even reach inside the belt-line of my pants and stuck strictly to the exterior.

After that, one of the other guards asked if she wanted them to swab my stuff and she said no and that I was free to go.

The entire time, I felt I was treated respectfully and politely (except for the question about the scanners). I do not feel I was touched inappropriately at any time. (I would like to state that I personally have no cultural or religious restrictions about being touched by other people and I realize that that affects the way I feel about how I was touched.) Actually, the pat-down I received was, of all things, calming… the touch actually felt gentle & soothing, not intrusive. The experience was pretty much a no-biggie compared to the horror stories I had heard. Apparently, I received an enhanced pat-down like it's supposed to happen.

I'm putting my story out there because there's so little data on people's experiences and that I found no information on what's actually supposed to happen on an enhanced pat-down and I found no non-horror story experience pat-down stories, so I had no idea what to expect, which is why I was very afraid going into it. Hopefully this allows you to make better decisions on whether or not you wish to fly and whether or not you wish to opt-out of the machines, knowing what the enhanced pat-down is supposed to be like.

I'd also like to throw this out there. I am a fat woman, and you might have noted in my story when I said there were parts she didn't touch or check, namely between my thighs (which were not completely and fully spread) and up underneath my breasts. I was not carrying anything illegal on my body, but some other fat person with folds or hanging breasts or very heavy thighs easily could hide things under their folds and get away with it, if everyone's pat-down was as this one was. I understand the need for appropriate pat-downs and I'm not suggesting they take a more aggressive pat-down stance, however, I am pointing out the ways in which their techniques are flawed and the process is merely security theater.



( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 17th, 2011 06:41 pm (UTC)
Thank you for sharing. I was lucky that I flew out of airports that were not operating their enhanced machines when I flew, but the few people that I have talked with about their experience said it was intrusive but respectful.
Jan. 17th, 2011 08:50 pm (UTC)
You're welcome. I didn't find my experience to be overly intrusive, actually. Maybe this is because I had received the "regular" pat-down a few times back in the day and didn't find this to be all that much more enhanced.

Also, one of the things I don't understand why they're not doing is having the people who choose to opt out go through the old-style metal detectors as well as receive the pat-down. I have no problems going through the old machines (I used to have to go through on a daily basis when I worked in government buildings, so I'm actually quite good at it.) and I think it would give an extra level of security to catch things that the pat-down could miss for the reasons I posted above.
Jan. 17th, 2011 07:28 pm (UTC)
I just spent a week in SFO and opted out both outbound at Dulles and on the way back at SFO.

Pretty similar experiences to you, though Dulles opted me out of the magnetometer as well (!) and just gave me a half-assed pat-down. They didn't touch my junk; they didn't even talk dirty to me and try to get me excited about the prospect. Heading back to the east coast, I was a training aid for a guy who was getting instruction on how to do it. Security theatre fail in both cases.

I think there is a bit of a conspiracy on to discourage opting out by making people feel self-conscious during the pat-down. As a fat, opinionated guy with a loud voice, I'm unlikely to be intimidated by these tactics. On the other hand, the shuffle and the "stand here, no stand there, etc" craziness might just be disorganization. None of these folks is paid terribly well and you can't expect to get the brightest and best working as TSA screeners, so....

The most annoying part, frankly (on both ends) was having the guy explain to me what he was about to do, in painstaking detail. Please. Not only have I been patted down ancillary to being arrested (more than once, oops), I've gone to classes where I've learned to pat people down thoroughly, with a pistol in my other hand, without covering myself, and without getting stabbed with needles that they might have in their pockets or whatever (not much of a risk in an airport...)

As far as discussion of what the health effects might or might not be, the TSA agent's argument from authority is cute, but no cigar. The health physics folks do not know for sure. There has been scant research. The key here is effective dose and absorbed dose, which I'm going to conflate here for a moment in the interest of simplicity. Without going into too much detail, the energy absorbed from radiation (ionizing or otherwise) is not uniform throughout your body's mass. For example, nobody ever got a sunburned liver - the effects of photons are confined to the epidermis. So too it is with low energy ionizing radiation like alpha particles or soft x-rays like used in the airport scanners. This is stuff that doesn't penetrate the top layers of skin, (and doesn't shoot through you like gamma and beta and hard x-rays will) so the absorbed dose is confined to the top few layers of cells of your skin. So if you weigh 100kg, the area that is exposed to the radiation might be only 1/2 to 1.0 kg.. and the entire dose is absorbed there. Sounds fairly nasty eh? Well, the power levels are way down, which helps... but *nobody knows*. Are you feeling lucky? If you're feeling geeky, check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Equivalent_dose and note that the weighting factor changes with the energy level.

By the way, I'm proud of you for opting out of security theatre. Keep it up.


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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