One of the more interesting (sometimes, disturbing) parts of “my job” is that I get e-mails from people across the country on a regular basis describing abusive TSA practices.  These accounts range from descriptions of the TSA’s usual pat-downs, of which the author was shocked to realize happen that way, to descriptions of clear violations of TSA procedure, thuggish attitudes, and down-right sexual assault.  There is one common theme beyond blue gloves: a high percentage of the time passengers feel abused, it is when they go to “the private room.”

For those of you who have had a TSA full-body pat-down, you probably know the speech they give you: a description of how they’re going to touch you, a note that they’ll be using the back of their hands on your “sensitive” areas, a question as to whether you have any injuries or medical devices, and finally, an offer to conduct the screening in private.

For the love of god, please do not take them up on this offer.

Three reasons:

  1. In the private room, there are no cameras, there is no supervision, and if you say the TSA screener inappropriately touched you, it is unlikely you will convince a TSA supervisor, a police officer, or a judge to believe you.  Every checkpoint in the country has many cameras, and you can actually request footage from them by Freedom of Information Act request.  If something goes wrong (well, more wrong than usual), this is your only hope for justice.
  2. Sometimes, the TSA will insist that they conduct private room screening. In particular, this will happen if you alert the explosive trace detector.  In this case, the private room screening will be even more invasive than usual.  They will literally be grabbing your genitals with the front of their hands.  Even if it results in missing your flight, do not go.  Even if the TSA insists that you must, refuse.  At some point, you have to draw the line — I urge you to draw it at this point or before.  Let them throw a fit, call the cops, or whatever it is they threaten you with, but at the end of the day, they have to let you go.
  3. Private screening allows the TSA to hide their pat-downs from everyone else, making it seem more rare and keeping the public less on notice of what may happen to them.  By forcing the pat-down to be in front of everyone else, you are taking a small stand.

If you think I may be exaggerating, here’s an example of the kind of e-mail I get (warning: graphic):

TSA Sexual Assault

This kind of sexual assault happens all the time, leading to a headline in 2011 where three different senior citizens in three different incidents accused the TSA of strip-searching them in the private room. But most of the time, stories like these get no media attention. The victim may file a complaint, and nothing happens.

Catching your flight is just not worth it.  Please help me get fewer e-mails like this and spread the word.

P.S. – One more suggestion, if I may: tuck your shirt into your pants before a pat-down.  If you do so, you won’t be asked to lift up your shirt, and you won’t feel their latex-coated hands on your bare skin.