Opting Out of Full Body Scanners

by Beth Whitman (March 14th, 2011)

March 15th is Everything You Think is Wrong Day. I want to take a moment to explore two aspects of this. The first is how my assumptions about opting out of the fully body scanners were wrong. The second aspect is how important it is to actually think and make conscious choices.

Full Body Scanner - WomanLast week at Sea-Tac airport, on my way to Kauai, I had my first opportunity to opt out of the full body scanner (also called back scatter scanner). I’ve written other posts about the health effects of the full body scanners and how the full body scanners effect women.

It appears that Sea-Tac was one of the last airports to have theirs up and running and I’ve been fortunate to never have had to opt out in Seattle or elsewhere. Until now.

First, here’s what happens when you opt out:

Once you’ve put all of your items on the security belt, you’re asked to pass through the full body scanner. A TSA agent stands there directing you to walk through. If you say that you’d like to opt out, he or she yells to someone, “Opt out.” The agent then reads from a little card a statement about the process you’re about to undergo for the patdown.

You’re walked through the archway of the electronic screener and then asked to identify your bag(s) and the bucket(s) that contain your personal items.

You’re then taken to a public area at the end of the screening belt by an agent who, in great detail, describes the full body patdown you are about to experience.

You can ask to be patted down in a private room.

You might recall late last year the guy who was taken into custody after he told the TSA agent not to touch his junk during the patdown? That and the ensuing hubbub around Thanksgiving where travelers were encouraged to opt out, put the whole screening process, and TSA agents, in a bad light. And more recently I’ve heard anecdotes from friends who’ve had unpleasant experiences with the patdown process.

So it was with some trepidation that I opted out.

But here’s my experience, based on my one opt out as well as witnessing Jon’s opt out (see photo right) in Hawaii.

Jon was in front of me at Sea-Tac and had already opted out. After I placed my items on the screening belt, I also asked for an opt out. The TSA agent yelled out, “Opt out,” and another agent standing at the screening area gave an audible sigh, as though this was going to be a hassle for her. (In reality, she had nothing to do with the process but was none-the-less annoyed.)

Jon Opt-Out at airportAfter I passed through and identified my items, a very nice woman took me aside and explained the patdown process to me. She said she was going to run her hands over and underneath my breasts, around the inside waistline of my pants – front and back – and run her hands up my inseam and down the outside of my legs.

I asked if it was possible to do this in private. She was more than accommodating and we moved all of my items into a little room where another female agent joined us as a witness.

The process WAS intrusive but I had expected that. The agent doing the patdown was very nice throughout the process – and I wasn’t expecting that.

Jon has had the unfortunate opportunity to opt out far more times than I and said he’s had the same experience – that the TSA agents have all been very nice throughout the process.

When we were departing Kauai, again he was in front of me. He requested the opt out. It was my good fortune that the agent closed the entrance to the scanner after that (I think just for a short break) and I walked through the electronic system instead. Phew.

So, why do I opt out?

Good question. The fully body scanners emit radiation. There hasn’t been proper testing to show what sort of harm/damage this amount of radiation might do to a person. But the TSA warns that children and pregnant women should not walk through them. So what does that say about the system?

Look, I question my dentist every time an x-ray is suggested – why would I submit myself to something that isn’t absolutely necessary, such as the full body scanner? And while frequent travelers should particularly consider opting out due to the potential health risks, no one should feel uncomfortable in opting out.

So, to get back to March 15th, I admit that I was wrong in thinking that opting out meant that I was (literally) going to be in the hands of some grouchy TSA agents. I wasn’t – they were quite nice. But I also want to stress that opting out IS an option for you! You should give this conscious thought and make a choice – don’t just assume that you have to do what everyone else is doing. And while process is somewhat intrusive, the agents have been well trained in customer service.

I haven’t seen one other person opt out of the full body scanner in my travels over the last 6 months when these have really been in use. Do I think that people don’t care? No, I just think they aren’t informed about the potential hazards, nor do they realize they have options.

Next time – please think. I don’t care if you go through the scanner or not, just make sure that you’re making a conscious choice.

On March 14th, 2011 at 8:15 am, wandering educators said:

i love this – not only bc it tells honestly of the process, but it’s also missing the vitriol that people have against TSA. thank you for your honesty!

On March 14th, 2011 at 8:21 am, Beth said:

Thanks, Jessie. I have plenty to complain about when it comes to flying, but this process surprised me. I think if more people knew it wasn’t THAT bad, they might also consider opting out.

On March 14th, 2011 at 8:28 am, Jennifer said:

As much as I am grossed out by LAX — why does my “home base” airport have to be the ugliest? — I will say this: When I last was funneled to the back scatter, in January, I politely asked if I could avoid it and they made some grumbles and pointed me to go through the regular X-ray. So, this is sort of the opposite of your experience,Beth, but with the same result. That is, I had surly security people, but no enhanced pat down to avoid the back scatter radiation.
Friendly with pat down or surly without, it’s all good as long as I’m not getting dosed.

On March 14th, 2011 at 9:10 am, Judith Kitzes said:

I went throught the back scatter process once – it seems to be quite random – and think I will opt out if I am selected again. Both processes are intrusive, but only one is potentially damaging to one’s health. But when you consider that they miss important things, the entire process seems unnecessary.

On March 14th, 2011 at 10:21 am, Jenn Sharp said:

Great post Beth!
I’m taking a trip to the US next week and now have the info I need – I’ll be opting out of the body scan and don’t feel bad about it in the slightest!

On March 14th, 2011 at 12:49 pm, Kent @ No vacation Required said:

Great post, Beth. As we discussed, I think it’s important to share these sorts of experiences. Our bigger issue is that – as Judith suggests – the entire process seems to be ineffective (given the huge amount of money the we spend on it). Here’s hoping that,, over time, the screening process with evolve into something that more effectively serves its purpose.

On March 14th, 2011 at 1:12 pm, Mona said:

Like your experience, I found the pat-down clerk to be kind and caring in a embarrassing situation. My metal hip triggers a pat-down every time. Several times when it hasnt set off the alarm, I wonder about the security level. I tried explaining that I didn’t need the full text while being patted, but the gal said she was required by law to say it all. I’ve been grope-patted in Turkey and also India before entering the Taj, the holiest temple in Varansi as well as the Red Fort in Delhi. It’s a sobbering experience when you think about why they must do it.

On March 14th, 2011 at 1:56 pm, Wimpie said:

So now the airlines are a tiny bit safer, but the determined terrorists will move on to “softer” targets, like Times Square, Xmas tree lighting ceremonies and cargo bombs.

Next attack – shopping centers, schools, cruise ships, sports events, subways, tunnels, buses, airport security lines to name but a few.

We cannot possibly catch every attempt by screening, but we can humiliate millions of people and help bankrupt already hurting commercial aviation companies.

Click my name for more info.

Fire 25,000 TSA clerks, dump the scanners and pat-downs, bring in dogs, and give the saved money to the FBI & CIA, who can actually catch terrorists (maybe).

My family and I won’t fly until this travesty is lifted.

On March 14th, 2011 at 4:22 pm, Tricia said:

The scanner would have taken 2 seconds. I value my time too much to stray from the norm. If they like me naked-ish, cool, they probably need it if that generic b&w image turns them on. If they don’t like me, f_ck ’em. I’m going on a trip and they aren’t.

On March 14th, 2011 at 4:24 pm, Tricia said:

I like the dog idea. Sniff everyone :) I’d rather be smelt up, felt up, and seen naked than die in a plane crash.

On March 14th, 2011 at 7:30 pm, Beth said:

You make a great point, Wimpie. The bad guys are just targeting different places now. I’m not sure if not flying is the answer, but something needs to be done differently…

On March 14th, 2011 at 7:32 pm, Meg said:

Thanks, Beth. Good advice. I’ll send it to all my children. I was taken aback when I had to go through L.A. Hadn’t heard of the opt out alternative. I was also patted down at the same time. Got the full treatment, eh? No thanks.

On March 14th, 2011 at 9:19 pm, Kara said:

Hubby dearest and I have both opted out for the patdowns. Our scanners told us that pilots go for the patdowns! I explained that we’ve just lost our second child and could be pregnant with our 3rd and we weren’t taking any chances. The screeners were very nice and very apologetic.

I figure if you’re nice about it and explain your reasoning, TSA generally do a pretty good job and don’t mind you as much. If you’re a beligerent and angry traveler, that’s where problems arise. 😉

The scanner I had was pregnant herself so that helped things. 😉

On March 15th, 2011 at 7:43 am, pam said:

I had my first experience with the scanners recently; I’ll be opting out in the future. I object to the strip search without just cause. Holding a plane ticket doesn’t make me a suspect. If they’re going to treat me like one, they’re going to have to look me in the eye while doing so.

On March 15th, 2011 at 7:50 am, Katie said:

Both times I have opted out, the TSA person has been friendly, polite, and very professional. I have never felt skeeved out or violated in any way. In fact, I think the average person getting fitted by a tailor gets their private parts handled more than someone getting a TSA patdown.

I figure I can endure a few minutes of very mild annoyance or go through a potentially harmful machine. I’ll take the mild annoyance.

On March 15th, 2011 at 6:47 pm, Danny D'Amours said:

Opted out of the scanner yesterday in Clearwater. Like you, the agent was very professional and polite but they seem to be annoyed by opt-outs as evidenced by a slight sigh.

On March 20th, 2011 at 7:31 pm, Lisa said:

Just came across your helpful article when I was googling opt out of body scanners because I’ll be traveling soon with my young children. I am not letting anyone go through the machine, but I also don’t want to allow any pat-downs to be performed on my kids. Please let me know if that will be a problem or what the official policy is on that. Thank you kindly !

On March 20th, 2011 at 7:33 pm, Lisa said:

p.s. I forgot to click on “notify me via email of follow up comment”. Thanks!

On March 20th, 2011 at 7:42 pm, Beth said:

Hi Lisa – you’ll have to choose one or the other (body scanner or pat down) unless you’re lucky enough to go through a line where they don’t have or require the scanner.

On March 25th, 2011 at 12:29 pm, Ms Traveling Pants said:

I have yet to experience the scanner myself, but yes many random checks and pat downs. However, I have had friends tell me on the experience of the scanner AND not opting out. I certainly would opt out when this happens. The amount of times I go through security a year is much higher than any of my dentist and doctor visits combined. I’m starting to think that this is getting to be too much. Will this make it safer or just everyone more scared?

On June 28th, 2011 at 8:34 pm, Judith said:

I also opted out of the SeaTac scanner. I’m concerned about the conveyor belt procedure, where your bags, purse, etc are expected to be passed through without you. Normally, there would be only a very short period where your belongings would be our of your sight, but in the case of a pat-down, that might be 5 minutes or longer. I would recommend that credit cards/passports/drivers license be kept on your person.
But in any case that part of the procedure needs to be changed by TSA, because airport security actually requires that you be within eye contact of your belongings at all times.

On January 3rd, 2012 at 9:03 pm, Kara said:

I opt out every chance I get. I’m an American born and raised but I live in Australia now. (The things we do for love.) I’ve no idea how much radiation I’m exposed to during my longhaul flights across the Pacific but I can go through as many as 4 different airports on my way from Oz to the US! 4! Hell no I’m not going through those things!

I’ve also lost both my children through tragic circumstances. (Our daughter died in the womb and our son moments after birth.) We’re still trying for a baby brother or sister for them and no luck.

I’ve found that if I explain *WHY* I don’t want to go through the scanners, and do so in a polite manner, TSA has no issue with me. Its the people that are irritable and flustered that cause problems. I don’t care if your flight is late or you’re late, keep your cool and TSA won’t have issues with you. :p

My husband also opts out as it’s not just me and conception we’re worried about. His bits get exposed too and we don’t know what that’ll do when it comes to our next baby.

On October 21st, 2013 at 3:39 pm, lab3ll3 said:

Why not ask how much radiation you go through on that airplane?

On October 21st, 2013 at 3:44 pm, Beth Whitman said:

Yes, lab3, there’s radiation on the airplane. And why would I want to expose myself to more when I don’t have to?

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