Digital strip search

TSA foes find friends and community

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Check the online response to any American political issue, and you’ll find almost as many different opinions as there are different bloggers.

But there’s one exception to this rule: the Transportation Security Administration. Ever since it implemented policies last year requiring airline passengers to either be scanned by nude-imaging scanners made by Rapiscan  or submit to an “enhanced pat-down,”the flying public has taken to keyboards to vent their near-unanimous rage.  

Consider Twitter. On Dec. 13, a search for the most recent Transportation Securty Administration (TSA) mentions exposed an avalanche of criticism (with the noted exception of straight-news media tweets, and those from TSA itself or its parent agency the DHS):

TSA just molested me...”; “Sure glad TSA took my toothpaste .. now the plane is safe #sarcasm”; “These days, kids probably don’t play ‘doctor’ anymore. They play TSA agent and traveler …

Not only are people tweeting about the TSA, there are a huge number of organized online opposition groups. Anyone wishing to join an online anti-TSA community will find an embarrassment of riches. (Full disclosure: I belong to several.)

One of the earliest such groups on Facebook was started to promote National Opt-Out of the Airport Scanners Day on Thanksgiving eve 2010, the idea being that fliers would refuse the Rapiscans and instead choose the enhanced pat-down in hopes of clogging up the works.

Other Facebook groups, most notably We Won’t Fly and Boycott Flying, pledge to avoid air travel altogether, so long as the TSA policies remain in place. The impact of these boycotts is unclear: According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, United States passenger air traffic rose 1.2 percent from September 2010 to September 2011, the most recent month for which numbers are available.

Meanwhile, opposition sites like TSA Watch, Abolish the TSA, and TSA Tyranny aggregate anti-TSA news.

Wendy Thomson of Freedom To Travel USA considers the Internet essential for exposing what she says are major flaws in the system.

“We would never know the high incidence of error rates, the assaults the TSA commits, or much else without the Internet—unless we knew someone personally, and at that point it would be anecdotal,” Thomson said. “Information in this instant case is working against the cloak of secrecy the TSA wishes it had.”

There’s still little evidence, however, that the group’s online protests have had real-world consequences.

Many anti-TSA activists felt especially outraged at the sight of pre-pubescent children subject to the same patdowns as adults, for example. Thomson credits Freedom to Travel with “getting the child-groping issue on the front burner.”

In September, TSA stopped requiring children 12 and under to take off their shoes and announced plans to use less invasive screening measures than patdowns, like sending them through metal detectors multiple times.

James Babb, cofounder of We Won’t Fly, was cautiously optimistic that the online organizing would have some impact.

“Centuries ago, revolutionaries used pamphlets to communicate and organize their activities; today, we have YouTube and Facebook, but the principles are the same,” Babb said.

“Blogs and social media are amazing new tools,” Babb continued. “Grassroots activism has existed for a very long time. Incredible injustices have been overcome without a single tweet. The tools may change with the times, but those who oppose tyranny will always find a way to come together.”

The TSA Blog did not respond to requests for comment by publication time. But the agency’s side of the story is perhaps best told by TSA employee Curtis Robert Burns, better known by his pen name Blogger Bob: “We do our best to treat passengers with the dignity and respect they deserve.”

Photo by Daquella manera