Government Mandated Groping

Image by Getty Images via @daylife

Many people are writing about the choice the U.S. government is now offering people in some airports: submit to the porno-scanner or be groped. A few quick reactions to some of what I have read so far. I am being a bad blogger and not peppering this post with as many links as I’d like due to limited time. Sorry.

I disagree with Anil Dash’s suggestion that if DHS’ tactics meet the goal of making people “feel” safer, then they’re somehow ok. It’s possibly -possibly, although I am not wholly persuaded- a legitimate goal to try to foster a “feeling” of confidence and safety in a community (whether that feeling is rational or not), but if that’s actually the goal, let’s talk about how best to do that. We could, for instance, learn from anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists. We could ask historians to weigh in. We could be debriefed by engineers who’ve developed large-scale systems used by humans about what seems effective and what doesn’t. Does anyone actually think that a serious look at how to make a population “feel safe” (and first, let’s define what we mean by that!) would result in this Kafka-esque scenario? Really? No. I said to Anil: “so the role of government is to cater to & indulge fear now? Why not foster resilience & robustness toward a more perfect union?”

There are also questions about why this technology is being invested in so heavily. Apparently Michael Chertoff stands to benefit financially? Hmm. That’s interesting, yah?

There are those who scoff at concern about the alleged “low levels” of radiation resulting from any single scan. The jury is possibly still out on the comparative risk (here’s the government’s best case that the risk is minimal), but I don’t think the dosage, however low it is (oh, no more than say, what your tv exposes you to – or whatever the argument is) really matters. These devices, while regulated (well, to the extent that U.S. government tries to regulate anything anymore in our free market utopia; ahem), are not like medical devices and they are not managed by trained radiologists. Even if the nominal operating parameters are “safe”, how hard is it for errors to happen? How easy is it to know that errors are happening? 25 years ago there was the Therac 25.  We still haven’t learned the lessons of that misfeasance, though.  Just in the last few years were major overdoses in radiation at large hospitals. Imagine one of these scanners ends up miscalibrated and dozens or hundreds of travelers are overdosed without anyone noticing. Given our history with even carefully monitored and regulated devices under the supervision of trained MDs, does anyone seriously think this couldn’t happen?

Personally, I don’t care as much about the porno-scanner (nudie pics, storage, transmission) aspect of these devices — although the unprofessional and rank misogyny and homophobia and, frankly, bullying that’s been reported in association with them is.. troubling, to say the least. I care about those issues from a policy perspective, but that’s a separate question from whether I’m worried about some headless nudie pic of me titillating someone in a backroom somewhere. From what I understand – limited though my meagre understanding may be – about system failure, dependable software, and our history of not designing these things well, I am extremely skittish about the potential health consequences – both on an individual level, and from a public health perspective. Increasing the numbers of pointless radiation doses – and let’s face it, it’s pointless security theatre – aimed at large portions of the population is likely to result in an uptick in negative side effects. Even if it’s a small uptick, it seems a foolish experiment to conduct on a grand scale without some serious foundational work being done — both on the systems engineering and design aspects, and on determining what the actual goals of these screenings and other security measures are and whether this technology is best-suited to meet them, not to mention some rigorous analysis of possible health effects (for operators and those being screened).

And even apart from the specifics of privacy and health, I worry about the implications for society of what continues to be a prioritization of “security” (more accurately, what is claimed to be increased security, but may often just be security theatre or simply the enrichment of some gadget vendor somewhere) at huge cost and over many other equally important societal values.

I found the video of a reporter’s shrieking 3-year-old daughter being pawed by an agent of my government extremely upsetting. Barring something unforeseen, we will not fly with TheLittleGuy until he is much older. For many reasons – sheer logistics being one of them. But potentially subjecting him to bureaucratic manhandling that would convey him to the powerlessness of a citizenry in the face of the almighty State is just not a lesson I’m inclined for him to absorb until he’s had a bit more cognitive development such that we can discuss it afterwards.

I also find it troubling that the government changed the policy on pat-downs so that if you refuse the porno-scanner, you no longer get the mild version of a pat down (which I’ve been subjected to a few times, actually), but an “enhanced pat-down” whereby TSA agents will apparently use fingers to probe and grope. It also makes me wonder, from a bureaucratic perspective, how the training to conduct these pat-downs is conducted. And how were they able to get a trained enhanced genital prober into all the airports that have these scanners so quickly. Or, were they? Stories about the professionalism of TSA agents are mixed at best. Is it considered a coup or a demotion to be assigned the task of genital groping? Glenn Greenwald RT’d someone wondering how close to Milgram experiment land we are. Yeah, we’re getting close.

Earlier today in my Twitter stream, someone also noted: “GROPING! It happens to straight dudes too, now, so everybody pay attention.” Yeah. Well. That aspect of things is always interesting, too.

The upshot at the moment for me is that I will avoid flying if at all possible. Right now I fly only for work. And if I’m faced with a choice between the porno-scanner and the grope, I expect I’ll opt for the grope. As I said on Twitter, I am fortunate not to have trigger-y issues; I’ve not been raped or sexually assaulted previously; and after breastfeeding for so long, I’m fairly pragmatic about boobs as just another useful body part.

I’ve got a couple of flights after the first of the year. If this nonsense is still going on and I get to make that “choice,” I’ll report back here (and maybe directly to Twitter straight from the grope zone).

Do stay tuned.

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3 Responses to Government Mandated Groping

  1. Dineen says:

    Our feelings on this issue are very similar. Our kids are seasoned travelers, but I am terrified to bring them to an airport now. And I don’t like the idea of doing it myself. It doesn’t make me feel safer, it makes me feel like the bad guys have won.

  2. acm says:

    yeah, what Dineen said. I do think that every time I decide on some other form of transport, I’ll send a note to my local hub airline, so that they know that the TSA directly cost them 1-3 passengers that day.

  3. Katxena says:

    I am ashamed to admit that I hadn’t even considered these things from a public health perspective. Thanks for the insightful post — you’ve convinced me to also opt for the grope.