Why I Opt Out Of TSA Body Scans At The Airport

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No one likes dealing with TSA at the airport. TSA screeners are seen as rude and uncaring; they are an obstacle to boarding your flight.  Travelers often share their TSA experiences on blogs, social media and travel forums.  For example, there are over 130,000 Google search results on the FlyerTalk forums about TSA.  Some passengers object to the body scans based on personal freedom or are uncomfortable with the invasive images generated by the TSA scanners. Others consider a machine with variable amounts of radiation to be a health risk.

Sometimes life is all about perspective. This morning I had another good experience going through TSA opt out and received something extra special. The TSA agent used consistent pressure while patting me down and I was able to disengage and imagine myself somewhere else…not at the SFO airport being patted but instead I was at a hipster spa for a 360 body massage:

The difference about this massage is that it was totally free didn’t require a Groupon.

Two years ago (2012) I started opting on a consistently from TSA body scans.  A good friend and a co-worker were both strongly against the scans and upon listening to their reasons, I decided adding a few extra minutes to my travel day was worth it.  The opt out process is straightforward: you put your items in the bins and notify a TSA agent that you’d like to opt out. They announce the opt out on their shoulder mounted walkie talkie and begin sourcing a TSA agent based on gender.

Each time I went through the opt out process in 2012, I tweeted about it to raise awareness that it was an option for travelers:

Once a TSA agent is found, they go over logistics with you — the location of your items you sent through for screening and how the opt out process works. Once in “opt out” mode, you cannot touch your things until the screening is over. The TSA agent picks up your things and walks you to a screening station. They explain the process for patting you down — Where they will pat, which side of their hand they will use, how they will inspect inside your waistband and afterwards test their gloves (for gun power residue). They will also ask if you’d like a private screening area.

At first I was self conscious about the TSA opt out screening process because other people could see what was going on. Had I done something to get in trouble? Why was I not going through the scanner like everyone else?

After a few times I was able to shed those thoughts and make the best of the situation. I’d warmly greet the TSA agent and make small talk. Many of the TSA agents welcomed a quick chat about travel, the weather, technology, curly hair and their memories about visiting major metropolitan areas. The feeling of public scrutiny was replaced with a friendly chat leaving both myself and the TSA agent in better spirits.

A female friend who co-founded a startup in Las Vegas told me about the one time she had decided to opt out and saw a man looking at her with googly eyes while she was being pat down, like he was getting off on it. Being the fixer that I am, I suggested she face away from the other passengers waiting to pass through screening. I always think of her when I opt out.

Nearly all my experiences have been positive with the exception of a few times when I waited more than five minutes for an agent. Sometimes I’ve worried about my personal items and tech hardware sitting on the conveyer belt after passing through TSA but thankfully have never had anything go missing.

My friend from Australia often would complain about the treatment he got from TSA staff while traveling in the US and he would heckle them to challenge his personal freedoms being cast aside for compliance usually expected from cattle.

The other way through a TSA security gate is through the metal detector. Airline personnel, pregnant women, adults with children and pets can go through the metal detector. If you opt out and then ask to go through the metal detector, you will be declined. When I traveled overseas for work, I expected other countries to have similar screening processes but instead I found that in both London and Germany, they still used regular metal detectors. I felt resent towards American airports for the hassle myself and millions of travelers experience every year due to the TSA screening processes. At the Tegal airport in Berlin, Germany, the process of checked baggage was much more streamlined than in the United States.  There you loaded up your checked baggage at the gate through a luggage conveyer belt.  Much shorter trip for your bags.

I will continue to opt out at airports but I look forward to the day where we focus on doing what is effective vs what looks like it’s effective.

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About Adria Richards

Adria Richards is a developer and entrepreneur focused on digital equality. She has worked in the tech industry since 1998 solving big problems for companies of all sizes. Embracing her inner nerd, Adria moved moved to San Francisco in 2010 to pursue her passion for technology. Previously she has worked in technical and training roles for enterprise, nonprofits and startups; from Apple to Zendesk. Adria is a popular speaker and gives talks about culture, communication and diversity. In her free time, she enjoys snowboarding, yoga and bacon; not necessarily at that order. Her Twitter account is followed by President @BarackObama.