TSA blues

April 1, 2015 • 7:45 am

It is 6 a.m., I have gone through security at Midway Airport, and once again I have been violated by the TSA. After passing through the See-You-Naked Machine, the agent asked me to turn around and look at the video output of my scan. Sure enough, on the screen there were bright yellow outlines on the buttockal and groinal areas—and nowhere else. Of course my pockets were completely empty, and there was no contraband anywhere. I had even stashed my wallet in my bag.

Nevertheless, the agent said he had to pat me down, and proceeded to grope me fore and aft. There was nothing to find, and so I passed on. My question is this: why were my nether regions highlighted in yellow when there was nothing there to find (nothing of interest to the TSA, I mean)?

This security theater is obnoxious, and so in protest I present this slightly salacious diagram:

92 thoughts on “TSA blues

      1. It had to be some sort of material in the undies. Some stuff contains silver to prevent odor, but would silver show up on their scanner? My apologies for discussing your unders, Professor Coyne.

        1. I was thinking the outlines are simply image recognition, identifying the places where their fingers will soon be exploring.

  1. Never having had this experience, I’d love to know what these “bright yellow areas” are supposed to denote? Is some god making the iron in your blood collect together suggestively in revenge for arguing so effectively against their existence?

    I don’t think I’d like to date a TSA agent – I’d never know what got him going that day, or whether he developed his foreplay techniques at work.

  2. Why do contemporary folks refer to their reproductive organs as junk? I’m too happy with Mr. Happy to refer to it as junk. As a matter of fact I’m disinclined to refer to any part of my body as junk – even the vestigial parts.

  3. Pay the $85 and get five years of TSApre for domestic flights,or since you travel abroad a reasonable amount sign up for global entry (which gives the TSApre benefit as a side effect). While I somewhat objected to spending the money I really appreciate the convenience. I can understand that people don’t want the invasion of privacy but various branches of government (mostly INS) and some employers have done so many FBI background checks on me, and so many agencies already had my fingerprints that one more wasn’t going to make any difference.

    1. I don’t even know how I managed to get “pre” status, but it is certainly a lot less stressful.

      1. If you went through the pay, fingerprint, interview thing to get it every trip you would know. Even if you don’t it will still pop up randomly on occasion.

        1. On a recent trip I was afforded the ‘pre’ status while my wife was not. I at first thought I was going to get extra scrutiny so when it turned out to be less, much less, it was like winning a prize. On the way home we both were afforded the ‘pre’ status. Neither of us have paid the $85 fee as we don’t travel very often, so it must’ve been random and was most certainly an unexpected thrill.

        2. Is that the NEXUS system you’re talking about. I always think of the NEXUS replicants from Bladrunner when I see that.

            1. Bladrunner was the cheap Canadian version of the movie with the hero being a Ukrainian from the prairies. 😀

          1. I always think of the NEXUS replicants from Bladrunner when I see that.

            I dunno, maybe, it Depends.

    2. It is not clear to me why paying $85 would make anyone less likely to try to smuggle something forbidden onto an aircraft.

    3. Pay them $85 and they won’t assault you every time you try to get on a plane.

      That’s called a protection racket.

    4. I can’t agree with this enough. I got on the pre-check list via my frequent flier account, and loved it so much I had to apply for Global Entry as well. You don’t realize how draining the small indignities of security theater are until you no longer have to go through them. And I fly upwards of 150 days out of the year.

    5. PreCheck is nothing but extortion, pure and simple. “All the animals are equal, but some more equal than others.”

      Everyone should be screened via the PreCheck-style process.

  4. Fortunate that I no longer have to travel so I do not experience this TSA invasion. My sister mentioned the TSA folks at the Phoenix airport were particularly obnoxious.

    Do you remember ever flying the airlines in the 60s and even 70s when they were glade to see you and everyone was happy. I should just say, Do you remember before deregulation? Ah, now you know.

    1. Yep. You could walk right through to your gate, and your family could wave at you as you boarded the plane.

  5. The machine is looking for things of unusual size attached to your body so you can take pride in that.
    Seriously though, humans are hardwired to try to at least humiliate strangers (it’s no longer PC to kill them) It’s part of the competition thing. A bunch of minimum wage techs are not very high in that chimps troop so you would expect them to be particularly obnoxious.

  6. I thought your experience would be more tragic because they could have insisted on a more intimate examination.

  7. The only part of me the TSA machine ever singles out for extra attention is a small area on my upper back. I guess my private parts aren’t as interesting as yours.

          1. A well known barrister in this part of the world (NZ) was reputed to have begun a submission with “as Your Honour will know, on entering a brothel it is customary to…”

      1. Actually, it is you who is supposed to wear the latex. I think it comes in a number of different colors.

  8. Maybe it is a matter of principle to not do this. Yet, more me a good option for airport screening is signing up for TSA pre. I get it with my Global Entry program. But with that I toss my bags on the xray belt and walk through the magnetic scanner. Shoes on, jacket on, wallet in pocket.

    1. It’s probably a symptom of SkyNet becoming self aware — playing an April Fools joke would be pretty sophisticated.

        1. Another sequel that I am not looking forward to. I will watch it, as I cannot resist, and will probably be rather disappointed.

    2. Jerry- how did they finally decide you weren’t secreting anything in your groinal or buttockal area? ( and I mean secreting as in hiding…not as in oozing)

  9. There is probably a special button on the interface to highlight the groin and buttocks on the display, so that the agent can investigate at their own discretion.

    1. I was about to suggest that. But – no offence to Gerry – I would have thought they’d only use that on good-looking chicks.

  10. TSA pre-check is great, but it is a mystery to me how (other than by paying for it) one gets it. On our last outbound flight, my wife got it and I didn’t, however the agent let me through that lane anyway. On the return trip, we both had it. Go figure.

    1. I heard they were experimenting with random bestowals. Sometimes the airport wants to speed things up, too. (Not just us.)

  11. Based on incidents that I have heard about, if you protest then they can pull you out of the cue for some additional questioning and you can miss your flight. This is not from genuine suspicion, but to make an example of you.

  12. I must be very lucky, since I’ve made 2-4 trips to the US each year for more than 10 years and I’ve never had this experience, even on internal flights.

    I’ve always found the TSA folks to be pretty reasonable, once even allowing us to keep the jar of marmalade (a gel!) that was in my backpack. (It was a wedding anniversary gift from the Royal Palms Resort in Phoenix, which has its own orange grove.)


  13. TSA aside, Midway is a pleasant airport. Lots of the shops have a local flavor, instead of the usual national chains you could find anywhere.

  14. I’m not sure the *average* painted lady’s salary is as good as the diagram implies…

    Perhaps for “active” hours, but that’s like saying a professor’s pay is awarded only for the time spent before students.

  15. Reminds me of Derek from Spinal Tap going through airport security.

    On a related note, I’ve had 27 pieces of hardware (steel) implanted in my feet and ankles in the past 18 months. Four long lag bolts, seven brackets, and sixteen screws. I’ve flown a few times since then and have never had anything detected. I was told that the see-you-naked millimeter-wave scanners can’t see beneath the skin, so that’s expected, but the traditional metal detector ones don’t notice either.

      1. There are some x-ray imaging machines, but I think all the ones I’ve seen are millimeter-wave. Both technologies work on the same idea: they transmit electromagnetic energy at you and receive what gets reflected from your body, then do a bunch of signal processing (math) to derive an image.

        As you know, x-rays are very high-frequency waves, well above visible light, and a photon in the x-ray range has enough energy to break chemical bonds. Because of this, there are more health concerns with x-ray devices.

        Millimeter-wave is more in the radio wave band of frequencies. Your cell phone probably works somewhat less than 1 GHz, your microwave oven and WiFi work at 2.5 GHz, and millimeter waves are somewhere in the tens of GHz (I’m not sure what these scanners use exactly). A photon in this energy range doesn’t have enough energy to break chemical bonds, so the health concerns are greatly reduced.

        1. I think they fall in the low infra-red area of the RF spectrum so a bit higher than microwaves but a lot lower than X-rays.

          Yes, millimeter waves, like microwaves are non-ionizing.

          1. Millimeter-wave is a lot closer to radio than to infrared. Here are some approximate frequencies:

            0.001 GHz – AM Radio
            0.1 GHZ – FM Radio
            1 GHz – cell phones
            2.5 GHz – microwave ovens and WiFi (what’s called “microwave” goes up to about 20 GHz).

            Millimeter-wave: 30 to 100 GHz mostly. Up to 1000 GHz can be called millimeter-wave, but there is very little being done above 100 GHz.

            Infrared is around 20,000 to 400,000 GHz.

            Visible light is 400,000 to 800,000 GHz.

            X-rays are about 100,000,000 GHz and up.

            Sorry to sound pedantic – I usually struggle to keep up with the biologists here but microwave and millimeter wave is my profession.

            1. Thanks. A lot of the pictures I looked at didn’t have enough detail. I had a really good one of the RF spectrum but it’s on some cloud drive somewhere and I can’t remember where.

      1. No.

        The muddiness of the original is due to excessive JPEG (lossy) compression, which mucks up contrasts.

        Yours is clean because it is in PNG, and thus losslessly compressed.

        What the video describes is a different problem (although it’s also a compression problem, in some way).

          1. No it is not.

            It is stored at an URL that ends in JPG. (That atrocity is between the uploader and his conscience.)

            However, its *contents* are of file type PNG. Open it with any image processing software to check. “Image properties” in most browsers should actually check the contents.

            If still in doubt, open it with a hexadecimal editor; the first few bytes spell PNG. It’s no coincidence.

              1. PNG is generally better than JPG for anything with sharp lines; for such a diagram it was appropriate.

                If you look closely you can see the text is sharper, blacker in the PNG version. JPG kinda/sorta approximates big squares into gradients so that colors blend into other colors nearby. It’s less noticeable when the image is more ‘noisy’.

                See this and wikipedia

                (Exercise 1: guess why that image *has* to be png)

                > I consider this to be “gamall correction” …

                Urg. Well I consider this to be a terrible pun, but I have too much of a headache to think of a suitably snide comeback right now.

  16. There was a recent article on the Alps plane disaster pointing out that articles like it might actually cause more deaths, because it would encourage people to drive instead of fly, and flying is so much safer. There have been several moderate length trips where I probably would have driven anyway, but did not even consider flying because of the TSA. So I suspect the TSA has a discouraging effect on air travel. It may even be possible that the TSA has cost more lives than it has saved.

  17. I hate the TSA with passion.

    Depending on the airport, the mood of the security guard and your direction of travel I have the awesome choice between someone feeling me up or a dose of radiation (or a mix between the two).

    To add to the fun you also get to answer awkward questions (and boy they really don’t appreciate irony or snark), experience the joy of someone going through your underwear in your baggage and being treated like a criminal being forced to give your fingerprints.

    They are the reason I avoid flying to the US whenever possible. Sometimes I cannot avoid it when visiting conferences but I certainly have scratched the US from my list of destinations for vacations. There are many other places in the world who are equally interesting without all the hassle.

  18. TSA once caught me trying to board a plane with a small plastic comb in my pocket. I was impressed.

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