Letters From Passengers: Part II.

Let’s do this.
Dear Taking Sense Away: I have a quick question that I suspect is a relatively common issue.  Last year, I had a bilateral mastectomy and breast reconstruction with implants.  Are my implants and scars visible on the full body scanner images?  If so, should I expect to be hassled about the implants?  Is there anything extra I should do to help make my trip through security speedy and smooth?  

Yes, your breast reconstruction and implants are easily distinguishable in airports that still haven’t replaced their remotely-operated backscatter machines, yet. Fortunately, the TSA is going to be removing all of those remotely-operated machines within the next few months. I am honest and try to be fair with this blog, so I will tell you the truth: I never in my time at TSA heard anyone joke about mastectomy/breast reconstruction issues, even though they were instantly visible to us in the remote viewing room. No matter how bad some of those TSA screeners were, they all had mothers or sisters, at least at some point, after all. That much can be said for TSA screeners.


Our next question comes from Skeptical T.:

Just curious, do the TSOs have a tool to enhance the resolution or magnification on body images seen in the private screening rooms?  I have always assumed that what the TSOs really are viewing is much more detailed than the images released to the public.

Hello Skeptical Traveler,

Resolution, no. As far as I ever saw, the images released to the public were about what we always saw in the remote viewing rooms. I saw images of (non-human) test targets with the software’s resolution-reduction setting temporarily disabled (during maintenance) and yes, those images were much more detailed than the ones I regularly saw in regard to passengers. They were possibly detailed enough to allow a screener to see, oh, I don’t know, a carefully positioned gun on a passenger’s side, placed against a black background.

The TSA is perpetually twisted in knots, trying to be Israeli-like in the reach and penetration of its security methods against the backdrop of the American political and social landscape. It is a wasteful and pointless endeavor, one where the TSA tries to make full body scanning mandatory for everybody, but then has to allow people the right to opt-out of the technology. And then has to bow to the ACLU and soften the technology’s detail capability. And then has to allow anyone with a disability who may be unable to raise one arm to not go through the scanners. And then has to allow anyone who may look a little too young to be exempt. And then has to do away with sentient beings ever looking at the image, because that was ill-conceived, too.

It finally gets to the point that whatever the TSA was trying to do has become so diluted that it is all but pointless. The full body scanners and the SPOT (Behavior Detection Program) program are the two biggest examples of this. Both of those programs should be reduced to about a tenth of their current size and complemented with random screening, which is basically what almost everything the TSA does boils down to, anyway.


Speaking of SPOTS (God, the official TSA blog rubbed off on me. Fucking shoot me, someone) speaking of spots, our next letter comes from a girl with a questionable one on her chest, RN in CA:

I travel a lot for work, and for the last several “naked scanner” times, I’ve been stopped because a “questionable spot” is on my chest. The spot is dead center, on my sternum, about where the pendant of a necklace would be. TSA asks if  I’m wearing a necklace (nope, never do), or if I’ve had surgery (nope!), then have to “pat down the area” which usually turns into a poke.  No one can ever tell me what it is, TSA is dumbfounded and usually just shrug when I ask what it is and why it only shows up on the naked scanners.  Do you know anything about this or has anyone ever sent you info on it?
We’re dealing with the MMW Scanners, here. It could be absolutely anything that is causing you to be targeted by the scanner’s algorithm. The thing about automated target recognition is that, while it removes the unnecessary and outrageous presence of a TSA officer looking at your nude image in a remote room, it replaces it with an inflexible machine/algorithm. There are all sorts of things that reliably cause false alarms on the micromillimeter wave scanners. I would not be surprised if at some point in the future someone else figures out a way to beat the ATR-equipped scanners, just as the remotely-viewed machines were successfully exploited. Then where would we be? Right back to being systematically patted down after going through the multi-million dollar scanners. In the immortal words of security expert Bruce Schneier: “It’s a stupid game, and we should stop playing it.”
What it all comes down to is that 95% of these machines may as well have just remained walk-thru magnetometers, fitted with random alarm generators, with maybe one or two full body scanners present per terminal, depending on the size of the airport: this would have achieved the same deterrence value, at a fraction of the cost. People can just opt right out of the scanners, anyway, or make themselves ineligible for the scanners in countless ways. That the TSA would venture to make this obviously limited security method (full body scanning) the primary mode of screening makes no sense, and is a waste of everyone’s time and money. If anything, this full body-scanner-as-primary-screening-method quest of the TSA’s has made us less safe, especially when one factors in the things that the money could have been spent on instead, as well as the incalculable damage inflicted upon the public’s already-tenuous trust in, and perception of, their TSA. The long-term effects of the public becoming inured to this sort of irrational, wasteful, and unnecessarily invasive policy-setting by the TSA is another thing to be considered. 


And finally, for tonight, a letter from anonymous:

I’ve never understood why people put up with this sort of mistreatment from the TSA when they have the power to end it- why doesn’t the flying public go on strike?

Unions strike for better pay contracts and working conditions, so why can’t the flying public go on strike for better travel conditions? I personally have not flown since 2009, and I will continue to sit on my hands and my wallet until things change. I understand some folks must fly or lose their jobs, however, most travel is purely discretionary- people do have a choice, they do have the power and it doesn’t take everyone just enough people who are sick and tired and not willing to take it anymore.

Keep up the good work!

Dear  Anon,

I think the TSA has successfully been just not bad enough since its inception.



Send all questions to takingsenseaway@gmail.com. I try to answer them within a couple month’s time.

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