Why the Concern About TSA Pat-downs for Children?
**Edited for update: I just got off the phone with a representative from the TSA Public Affairs Office. I have updated a few things based on what he told me, those items are in red**
Before the hoopla about the new Transportation Security Administration (TSA) scanner v. pat-down procedures reached such a frenzy, I booked a December round trip flight for me, my 2 year old child, and my mother. Since hearing some of the horror stories about the scanners and pat-downs, I have been fretting about whether I would rather have Kieran undergo a scan or a pat-down.
Why am I concerned about either of these two security measures? Well, without going into the possible constitutional issues with scanners or extensive pat-downs,1 here are some of the most cited concerns about each alternative:
- Do the scans even work? The scanners are supposed to help Transportation Security Officers (TSOs) “detect both metallic and non-metallic items that may pose a threat to aviation security.”2 To get an idea of how the technology works, you can read and watch more about it at the TSA website, Next Media Animation (video), or How Stuff Works.
But is the technology even that effective? Maybe, maybe not. This video report from CNN vividly demonstrates the shortcomings of the Advanced Imaging Technology – it shows how a person could get a significant amount of PVT explosive through security, four times more than the “Underwear Bomber” had hidden. CNN explains that the scanners are only good at detecting sharp edges and/or mass. But there is always a human element involved, too.
- Is there a radiation hazard? There are many people uncomfortable with the idea of exposing themselves and their children to the radiation present in the scanners. Medical researchers have demonstrated that the effects of radiation exposure is cumulative over time, and too much radiation can cause cancer.3 TSA officials and radiation experts reassure travelers that the radiation exposure is minimal, amounting to even less than some other everyday exposures. For example, one expert says that you are exposed to more radiation by standing in New York City’s Grand Central Station for an hour.4 But not everyone is as sure as the TSA, including at least one molecular biologist.
- Can the scanned images be recorded and/or distributed? The TSA’s official position on whether images can be recorded is that “Advanced imaging technology cannot store, print, transmit or save the image, and the image is automatically deleted from the system after it is cleared by the remotely located security officer.” Of course images can be reproduced by cameras, video cameras, cell phone cameras, etc. – but TSA policy does not allow TSOs to carry any kind of recording equipment during working hours.5 However, the scanners can be put in “test mode,” which does allow images to be stored, exported and printed.6
The question of whether TSOs are always honest – never carrying recording equipment or switching a scanner to test mode – is what makes people uncomfortable.7 And what makes parents particularly uncomfortable is that the images produced by scanners are too close to “naked” pictures and could arguably be used to make child pornography.8
- Can a young child stand still for the required scan time? To be scanned with the new technology, travelers must stand still for approximately five seconds with arms raised above their shoulders. This raises concerns for parents of very young (or very reserved/shy) children, as well as for passengers with disabilities. Scanners and pat-downs are supposed to be choices given to every passenger – but young children may not have the ability to make that choice. If your child is unable to hold still long enough (and in the correct position) to be scanned, he or she will receive a pat-down.9
How is that giving children (or the disabled) a choice?
- Why won’t the TSA tell parents what the exact pat-down policy for children under 12 years is? The TSA website says: “Transportation Security Officers will work with parents to resolve any alarms at the checkpoint. If required, a child may receive a modified pat-down. Parents are encouraged to ensure their children have taken all items out of their pockets as they go through the security checkpoint.” But when one news station asked for clarification about the “modified” pat-down, and more specifically, whether TSOs are allowed to touch the genitals of children, Jon Allen with the TSA replied, “I can’t discuss specifics of a security procedure such as a pat down.”10
The TSA Public Affairs representative explained that the TSA cannot disclose details of the modified pat-downs for security reasons. He did say that at this time, the procedure for whether passengers (including children) go through metal detectors and/or scanners is not consistent. It depends on how many AIT scanners the airport has and the traffic flow. You may never see a scanner, you may see one but only walk through a metal detector, you may be asked to go through a scanner as a routine matter.
If you have a child that is not yet walking and you are traveling without a companion, you will not be required to put your child down. You and your child will receive a hand inspection that is not nearly as invasive as a pat-down. If you are concerned about going through security with your child, you might try contacting the TSA office for the airports you will be flying out of (my suggestion, not the TSA representative’s).
It appears that even modified pat-downs may include TSOs running the back of their hands across children’s genitals, but a TSA Public Affairs representative would not confirm or deny this assertion.11 No parents should be forced to let a stranger touch their child’s genitals, especially without full information.
- Why are TSOs (who are regularly touching adults’ and children’s genitals) allowed to hold a position of trust without submitting to a more rigorous criminal background check? I am not the authority on the hiring process of TSOs, but I’ve done a fair amount of research.
These are the key qualifications for a TSO: “a) Must be a US Citizen or US National; be 18 years old at time of application b) Be proficient in English; have customer service skills; c) Dependable & operate with integrity; repeatedly lift/carry up to 70 pounds; d) Maintain focus & awareness within a stressful environment; e) Meet job-related medical standards and pass background investigation.
TSOs must have a high school diploma, GED, or equivalent OR have worked at least one year full-time in security work, aviation screener work, or X-ray technician work.”12
Candidates for a TSO position are not required to report whether they have been convicted of or have received diversions for felonies more than ten years before applying for the TSA, or any misdemeanors or diversions (whether the misdemeanor was received 6 months, 6 years, or 60 years previously). What’s frightening about this specifically is that candidates are NEVER REQUIRED to report misdemeanors, felonies older than ten years, or diversions received for sexual misconduct, including misconduct with a minor.13
I have not found any documentation regarding psychological testing for TSOs, nor any kind of interview questions related to sexual misconduct. And even the felonies that are screened for aren’t enough to prevent criminal activity by TSOs, so why should we expect the current background checks to weed out criminal activity that is never investigated?14
- Why should parents normalize the touching of a child’s genitals for any stranger who is not in a medical position? I’ve read suggestions about “role playing” or “playing pretend” with children to “get them ready for a pat-down.”15 But why would I play pretend to help my child believe that a random stranger touching his genitals should be normal? My role as a parent is not to encourage my child to allow strangers to touch their private parts.
Some people might compare TSOs to doctors – the only other accepted adult (besides parents) in a child’s life who might have reason to touch the child’s genitals. But the analogy is weak.
Doctors go through extensive background checks (including misdemeanors and other charges). TSOs do not.
Doctors have extensive training in both human anatomy, as well as on how to deal with children. TSOs do not.
Doctors touch children in order to diagnose and treat, to keep healthy. TSOs touch children to rule out terrorist behavior. Even adults feel guilty of wrongdoing when undergoing pat-downs (when no wrongdoing has occurred).
- What about those children who are simply scared of or uncomfortable with adults touching them anywhere, much less in their private parts? My child is a sensitive child. He does not want anyone to touch him without his consent – and I respect his desires in this area. I don’t force him to kiss grandma when he doesn’t want to. I don’t chide him for not shaking someone’s hand. I don’t tsk tsk him for burying his face in my shoulder when an adult wants to give him five. So what happens if someone like my child can’t hold still for the scanner, but he refuses to allow a TSO to pat him down? That parent has to eat the cost of the plane tickets?16
What should you do if you feel that a TSO has violated your rights or the right of your child during a screening? Before leaving the screening area, politely ask to speak with the screener’s supervisor. Discuss the incident with the supervisor. (Make sure to build some extra time in when arriving at the airport with children – you may need it to help children get through security safely and with as little stress as possible.)
You may also call the TSA Office of Civil Rights anytime after an incident. The toll-free number is (866)289-9673.
And if you do not believe that the new security measures are appropriate, call and/or write your congresspeople today. Definitely call them if your rights are violated. We must follow through – make waves to make changes.
As far as fears of the $11,000 civil fine that the TSA is permitted to levy against passengers who start the screening process and opt out part of the way through, the TSA representative said that such a fine has never yet been given to someone. In a circumstance where a parent has to leave the airport because of a child who cannot handle either the scanner or the modified pat-down, the fine should not be a concern.
What have I missed in this list?
What are YOUR concerns with the scans and/or pat-downs with respect to your children?
If you HAVE to fly, which will you choose?17
Photo Credit: So Stadium Status
- See, e.g., Jeffrey Rosen, Why the TSA Pat-downs and Body Scans Are Unconstitutional, Washington Post, 11/28/2010 ↩
- TSA Frequently Asked Questions, Advanced Imaging Technology ↩
- Cumulative Radiation Exposure From Imaging Scans Should Be Weighed Against The Benefits Say Researchers ↩
- TSA Airport Scanners: Radiation Truths and Lies ↩
- TSA Privacy: Advanced Imaging Technology ↩
- The TSA Blog, Advanced Imaging Technology: Storing, Exporting and Printing of Images ↩
- For more on why the general public is unnerved, see the Florida U.S. Marshal scandal and the response via the TSA Blog. ↩
- Kittywampus: Are the TSA Body Scanners Creating Child Porn?. For the legal definition of what constitutes child pornography, see 18 U.S.C. § 2256. For a view from across the pond, see New Scanners Break Child Porn Laws. ↩
- See Travelers Upset About Thorough Pat-Downs on Kids and Thanksgiving Travel Advice: Modified TSA Patdowns for Kids and Other Checkpoint Procedures ↩
- TSA Responds to Complaints About Kids Being Patted Down at Airports ↩
- See Travel Q&A: Helping Children Cope with New Airport Security Measures (“Even with children younger than 12, a screener will pass the back of his or her hand over the genital area.”) and Passengers Share TSA Horror Stories, Log Complaints Online. I emailed Ann Tatko-Peterson, the author of “Travel Q&A,” and asked her for her source for the above statement. She said that she got it directly from a TSA spokesperson and directed me to this TSA blog post. The TSA post does not mention anything about screeners touching children’s genitals. I spoke with a representative from the TSA Public Affairs office by phone on December 1. The information he shared with me on the record is included in this post in red. ↩
- See any USAJobs TSO Job Announcement, here is one for Indiana. See also TSA Blog: What it Takes to Be a Transportation Security Officer ↩
- See 18 U.S.C. § 2256 The TSA Public Affairs representative also sent me a TSA Human Resources document about the background check, it basically mirrors § 2256. ↩
- See, e.g., this list of news headlines reporting on-the-job crimes by TSOs. By the way – I am not in any way trying to say that many/most/all TSOs are at risk of abusing their power in performing pat-downs on our children. I do think there is potential for misconduct, and I do not feel the TSA is doing enough to prevent it. ↩
- How to Get Your Kids Through the TSA ‘Pat-down with Little Trauma ↩
- Yes, I know. Most people would probably say “Yes! Those people are simply unable to fly! But I thought I’d cover this point anyway. ↩
- By the way, here is what we’ve decided to do (as of this minute): we’re practicing the “statue game” with Kieran. He holds still with his arms above his head for the count of 10. We are doing this because I am more comfortable with the amount of radiation emitted by the new scanners than I am with a pat-down. We will practice this with him at home, at noisy restaurants, at stores – everywhere so that he can play the game in a variety of circumstances. We will also connect this with airport procedures, so he knows what to expect. If we DO need to get a pat-down, I am torn – part of me wants to request a private room, because I know Kieran will flip out if he has to be touched. But I’d also like to have the security cameras rolling on us and plenty of witnesses available, so perhaps we will just stay right there. Supposedly, TSA policy is that I will never be separated from Kieran. If they try to take him out of my sight, I will follow them. I refuse to be separated from my child. If anything strange or against written policy happens, I will call the TSA Office of Civil Rights: (571)227-1917 or (866)289-9673. ↩
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"Why the Concern About TSA Pat-downs for Children?"
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