When I started this blog, my greatest worry was that no one would find it. Then, after the blog caught media attention, my greatest worry became that the TSA would find me: I was blogging as a current TSA employee, not a “former TSA employee,” up until a few days ago.
It was the TSA’s use of the full-body scanners that prompted me to first speak out and voice my opinion that the technology represented a wasteful, reckless, and unnecessary infringement upon people’s privacy; an opinion informed by several years’ experience operating the full body scanners, and it is for similar reasons that I am making this confession today— in light of the fact that now, the public finally has the chance to voice its opinion on the matter.
Though my primary goal with this blog is to bring some levity to my experiences as a TSA employee, the TSA’s mission to make the scanners the primary mode of screening is the one thing in which I have been unable to find much humor.
While a small contingency of civil liberties advocates opposed the scanners from the moment the TSA announced its plans to roll them out en masse, I was privileged with a behind-the-scenes view. From day one of training I had the sense that the TSA’s implementation of the scanners was an ill-conceived and clumsy venture. As time went by, my inkling was to be borne out by evidence: we TSA screeners on the floor-level soon learned that the scanners essentially did not work. It did not take long for members of the public to deduce that fact and reveal it to a wider audience.
It was around this time, in 2011, that I began planning to separate from federal employment. I had to find another career path, but in the meantime could not remain silent on the many absurdities that I was witnessing from an insider’s vantage point; could not continue to watch quietly from the sidelines as citizens waged legal battles against the TSA, while my TSA co-workers and superiors hid from the public what we knew to be the truth: that the scanners were only superficially effective, at best, and completely ineffective, at worst.
It was harrowing for a while, donning a TSA uniform by day, and expressing my uncensored opinions on the TSA to a global audience by night. At times I was going into work and quietly enduring TSA supervisors and managers obsessed with trifling matters such as gum-chewing, and then coming home to discover encouraging e-mail from former Undersecretaries of the Department of Homeland Security and other D.C. higher-ups in my inbox.
There were other surreal moments, like the realization that two of my co-workers were following my blog’s Twitter account, unaware that they were actually working side-by-side with the anonymous “former employee.” There was the time I noticed two co-workers reading this blog on their smartphones in our break room, laughing and speculating about which airport the blogger had been based out of. There was the joy of giving voice to an underrepresented group of people—former TSA screeners who wrote me expressing various concerns, some of whom, after being published on this blog, went on to receive media coverage in their own right. And, most significantly, there was the time— December 31, 2012, 9:22 A.M.— when I logged into the TSA’s intranet system (the TSA’s “Idea Factory”) to find that a TSO had posted a comment regarding this blog, proposing that the TSA’s PR department do more to deny the truth of everything that I was writing; I watched the comment section with a certain amount of dread, worried that I would find a chorus of TSA employees echoing his sentiment, but was relieved when he received no comment from his peers (save for criticism of his grammar).
A few passengers emailed me asking me what I would do if the government tracked me down; if I were proverbially “thrown in Guantanamo” for speaking out about the TSA and DHS. On January 23rd, I received a question from a passenger named Shane, regarding Sensitive Security Information:
My question to you is: If you’re not an employee of TSA anymore, does that make you no longer a “covered person”? If not, what’s your rationale behind continuing to uphold a directive that TSA has been been seen to use as a shield to avoid accountability despite it offering no actual security benefit? Do you fear retaliation by TSA? I would understand if you did, as the agency is nothing but authoritarian. Do they claim that ex-employees are still bound by SSI guidelines even though SSI isn’t a real security classification?
I apologize that it’s taken me so long to respond to your letter, Shane, but yes, the possibility— perhaps inevitability— of retaliation by the TSA has always hung in the back of my mind. After all, I began receiving hate mail from TSA employees early on, some of which I’ve published, some of which I have not. But I felt that the benefit to the public of voicing my opinion outweighed the risk of civil penalties or “other corrective actions.”
Now that I am truly a former employee, I can say that working for the TSA rarely ever felt like anything more than being on-tour with a clown troupe doing a 21st-century parody of the Keystone Cops. Only instead of making people laugh, for the most part, all we did was impinge upon their privacy and compromise their rights, under dubious pretenses. To be sure, there were some golden moments of laughter: there was the TSA supervisor who told us, in the wake of the 2006 liquids plot, that sandwiches were not to be allowed on-board planes until he got official word on whether or not the sandwiches’ mustard and mayonnaise constituted a banned liquid; there was the manager who declared that passengers were to be forced to surrender tinfoil due to the boxes’ potentially dangerous serrated edges; there was the sheer absurdity of coming to find out that we were operating full body scanners that couldn’t detect guns.
OK: there were actually a lot of humorous moments at the TSA, and as you have seen, I have tried to tease humor out of the organization wherever possible. But I would rather write jokes than work for one, and so recently, after much searching, I received a job opportunity more in-line with my goals, and officially resigned my post as a TSA officer.
The purpose of this post is to encourage as many people as possible to take their turn in expressing their opinions on the full-body scanners, now that the TSA has been forced into a measure of accountability. There are still 3 weeks remaining for citizens to officially speak out. The TSA is attempting to make the case that its initial roll-out and continued use of the full body scanners represented a public good; that making full-body scanners a new fact of life for the public was necessary in the interest of ensuring our safety. They tout their new “privacy-friendly” millimeter wave scanners as the solution to their badly bungled initial decision to expose the public to radiation-emitting Rapiscan machines, but the truth is, the millimeter wave scanners are ineffective, too. The truth is that an alarming number of TSA employees with whom I was personally acquainted were privately of the opinion that the full body scanners, in all their iterations, should be abandoned as a primary screening method.
The truth is that I knew several TSA employees who, through independent internal tests of the millimeter wave scanners, discovered a weakness in the technology’s detection capability: the MMW scanners are consistently unreliable when it comes to detecting threats in a certain area of the body, the exact location of which I have decided not to divulge. Suffice it to say that it is a laughable weakness. Various TSA employees have attempted to bring the aforementioned vulnerability to the attention of TSA higher-ups, and to recommend that the scanners be done away with in favor of a slightly enhanced version of pre-2010 security protocols—the level of security deemed satisfactory by several nations. But the concerns and opinions of those vocal employees have fallen on deaf ears at TSA headquarters; or at least upon the ears of those whose interests do not intersect with acknowledgment of the inefficacy of the full body scanners.
It is not just one weakness, either: the millimeter wave scanners are fraught with defects— there is their high false alarm rates, which alone caused some governments to decline to implement the scanners. There is their costliness, which, when factoring in the price of manning the machines, quickly runs into the hundreds of millions when spread out over several years. There is the comical degree to which the scanners are rendered inane due to the TSA’s need to make them PWD and kid-friendly: there are several loopholes one can exploit to make oneself ineligible for the scanners (e.g., claiming the inability to raise one’s arm, going through security holding a small pet, or simply traveling with someone who appears to be aged 12 or under.) There is the false sense of security that the scanners give TSA screeners and passengers alike, thereby compounding the security weaknesses of the scanners-as-primary-screening-method configuration. And last but not least, there is the possibility that the full-body scanners will have the effect of conditioning the public to be willing to submit to unnecessary, invasive security measures as a result of highly infrequent and statistically negligible terrorist threats.
In short, the full body scanners are inherently plagued by so many weaknesses that it would be in the public’s best interest for them to be removed from airports as a primary screening method. This is my opinion, and the opinion of many TSA employees whom I knew. EPIC’s lawsuit is correct in its statement:
“When the TSA deployed the body scanners, it initiated one of the most sweeping, most invasive and most unaccountable suspicion-less searches of American travelers in history.”
With this post I am merely voicing the opinion of many TSA employees who are too timid or complacent in their jobs to speak out about the gross mismanagement and abuse of public trust endemic to the TSA.
Whatever may happen to me as a result of this blog in the coming years, I will not regret its publication. I believe there to have been an intrinsic Good in having spoken out; a small triumph in the very presence of these words on your screen, for I believe the function of free speech, in the words of Thomas Sowell, to be a social one:
“Intended to benefit vast numbers of people who do not themselves exercise their rights.”