Friday, January 7, 2011

E-mail to California senators on TSA screenings

On November 20, 2010, I sent this e-mail to our two California senators.

Dear Senator Boxer/Feinstein,

I am truly shocked by what I have seen in the news this past week, concerning the security screenings at airports. Our basic human dignity and civil liberties have been eliminated. A person should not have to choose between having a naked image taken, or having their genitals touched, as a prerequisite to boarding a plane.

I am currently in France, and will not be able to visit my family for Christmas this year. I do not want to show my naked body to a TSA agent, and do not want to be molested by a TSA agent. The TSA is the one terrorizing our citizens now. Any attempt to preserve our basic rights are met with threats of $11000 fines and arrests.

I am saddened and afraid for the direction in which this country is headed. Please, hear the outcry from the California residents and Americans all over, and stop this insanity.

Thank you for your time

I received a reply today from Senator Feinstein:

Thank you for contacting me to express your concerns about the Transportation Security Administration's (TSA) use of whole-body imaging scanners and pat-downs. I appreciate the time you took to write and welcome the opportunity to respond.

As you may know, the TSA began using advanced imaging technology (AIT) in February of 2007. These scanners produce a three-dimensional image of passengers, allowing TSA officials to quickly and efficiently search for prohibited carry-on items. Following the attempted bombing of Northwest Flight 253 over the United States on December 25, 2009, the TSA has accelerated scanner installation, placing 450 whole-body imaging scanners across the country.

I understand you have concerns that full-body scanners and pat-downs may pose privacy concerns. You may be interested to know that the TSA has taken steps to ensure every passenger's privacy. Specifically, images from AIT machines are viewed in a remote location, away from the screening process. Once the TSA official has viewed the image, that image is then permanently erased. In addition, only passengers who alarm a walk-through metal detector or a whole body image scanner or opt out of the AIT machines are subject to a pat-down. These pat-downs are performed by same-gender TSA officers and all passengers have the right to a private screening with a witness at any time.

I believe the failed Christmas Day bombing plot is a reminder that it is important to meet our critical national security needs. I understand these procedures have caused inconvenience and discomfort for passengers; however, critics of these security screenings must consider the possible consequences of relaxing our security measures. Protecting American lives from terrorist attacks is, and must be, the nation's highest priority. Please know that I value your opinion and will keep your concerns in mind as I work to strengthen airport security, while continuing to protect individual privacy.

If you have general concerns about TSA policies, I would encourage you to visit to view current policies for travelers. Additionally, if you have not already done so, I would encourage you to contact the TSA directly to share feedback about current policies. This may be done either by phone at (866) 289-9673 or by email at

Once again, thank you for writing. Should you have any additional questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact my Washington, D.C. office at (202) 224-3841. Best regards.

Sincerely yours,

Dianne Feinstein

United States Senator

Note: I ended up actually traveling during the holidays.  The ticket I had purchased months prior was non-refundable, and therefore a boycott would have had no impact.  I did, however, write messages on my clothes and skin to express my disagreement at the security checkpoint.  The messages included "unreasonable search" and "want to fly ≠probable cause".

Update: I sent the following reply to Senator Feinstein, who in turn replied with the exact same text as her first reply above.

Dear Senator Feinstein,

I wrote to you in December about my concerns about the TSA invasive screening procedures (naked body scanners and molestation pat downs).

You replied to me. Thank you for taking the time to reply. I understand that you are very busy and sent the same reply to many people who wrote you about the TSA. I would request that you do read and consider this new letter, however.

In your reply, you made one very interesting comment, with which I agree wholeheartedly. You said "critics of these security screenings must consider the possible consequences of relaxing our security measures."

Indeed, any security measures should be evaluated for

a) their effectiveness,

b) the consequences of the disaster the security measures are attempting to prevent,

c) the probability of such a disaster occurring, without the security measures in place, and

d) the consequences and costs of using the security measures.

These points are all important, however, you only seem to be concerned with b).

Let me address these points:

a) The effectiveness of the body scanners and pat downs finding explosives such as those used by the underwear bomber is limited. Explosives may be hidden under the folds of skin or inside body cavities, and this will not appear on the image of the naked body scan.

b) The consequences, should a terrorist manage to get explosives on a plane, and should he succeed at detonating a bomb, are indeed disastrous. A few hundred lives would be lost instantly.

c) This is a very important, and yet seemingly overlooked, aspect. The likelihood of a terrorist blowing up an airplane, with pre-naked-body-scanner-and-pat-down procedures is extremely low. You are more likely to be struck by lightning or die from a bee sting. You are *much* more likely to die in a car accident on the way to the airport. I'm not saying a terrorist attack will never happen. All I am saying, and requesting of you and your fellow lawmakers, is that the likelihood be put into perspective.

d) These security measures are making travelers feel violated and humiliated. They are making people refuse to travel, making it more difficult to visit family. One of the consequences of the invasive security screenings is that they are actually encouraging people to drive instead of fly, and are these people, on the roads, are now at a *higher* risk of dying (and causing death) during traveling than they were before the invasive security measures were put into place!

The very low (if any) added security from these invasive security measures is simply not worth the loss of freedom and dignity we are seeing.

Please, put the risks of an attack, and the value of freedom and dignity, into perspective.

Thank you again for your time.

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