In late August, I flew back to my home on the west coast on a Southwest Airlines flight from Boston’s Logan International Airport. Before boarding, I encountered a backscatter X-ray scatter at the security checkpoint for the very first time. Luckily, there was no one behind me, so I asked the TSA agent nearby to confirm my fears.
“Is that an X-ray scanner?” I said.
“Yes it is,” he stated.
“I won’t go through it,” I replied. I’ve already had six CT scans in my life so far, and given that each one amounts to roughly 200 X-ray exposures, I don’t need any more excess radiation exposure than I already receive on the flight each way.
“You can go through it. It’s safe,” he reassured.
“I will not go through it,” I repeated.
“We’ll turn it off for you,” he said. “Just walk through it.”
“No,” I insisted. “I refuse to walk through that. I’d like to opt-out.”
“It’ll be off!” he said, not seeming to understand the message. There was no way for me to verify whether the scanner was actually on or off, whether or not it had been calibrated correctly, or how much radiation I was actually being exposed to.
Finally, after a short standoff, a voice of sanity rang out: one of the other TSA agents, an elderly woman who had been listening to the exchange.
“He’s opting out, he’s opting out!” she said. A solution presented itself: the first agent eventually told me I could walk around the scanner by going through a small gate in front of it, which I did. I received a thorough pat-down afterward, but I didn’t care and easily survived despite the temporary discomfort.
A few months later I flew again, this time from Salt Lake City, where five security lines led to metal detectors and one to a backscatter X-ray machine. I maneuvered into a line that led to a metal detector, but one of the scariest images I have ever witnessed was the line of unwitting passengers walking through the much larger X-ray machine nearby, arms raised, like a scene from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The woman behind me in line had no idea about the differences between the machines, let alone that she could opt-out of an X-ray scan.
You can opt-out, and you should. It may require repeating yourself four times, and it may hold up the people behind you, but it is most certainly worth it. This is not about the absolute radiation exposure you might receive from one scan, or about sexual assault, or even about airport security. This is about Government’s right to subject citizens to ionizing radiation in any quantity at any time without a proper explanation of the consequences of that radiation, and without a proper exploration of safer alternatives. In the United States Constitution, this is referred to as “unreasonable search and seizure.” That we have even reached this point represents a grotesque failure of our society on several levels, from Congress to President Obama himself, to the executive branch agency he controls (DHS), its subdivision (TSA), the employees it purports to train, the airports and airlines it works with, the intelligence agencies (CIA, FBI, NSA) that should be offsetting the need for such draconian measures, and the passengers who have until now put up anything but a fight.
Now is the time to put up a fight. Tell your relatives from afar that you will probably be late to Thanksgiving dinner, but when you get there, the world will be a safer place.
Aaron Greenspan is President & CEO of Think Computer Corporation and the author of Authoritas: One Student’s Harvard Admissions and the Founding of the Facebook Era. He is the creator of FaceCash, a mobile payment system.