Social media -- which has played a major role in enabling travelers to share their tales of humiliation, videos of strip-searched children, and overzealous hand searches, and enabled almost instant polling of citizens both for and against the Transportation Security Administration's (TSA) newly enhanced screening methods and advanced imaging technology at airports -- now is behind National Naked Scanner Opt-Out Day, planned for Wednesday.
The day before Thanksgiving is typically one of the busiest flying days of the year, as Americans set off for their Thanksgiving destinations. This year, about 40 million people are expected to take to the skies, according to industry reports.
Spurred, in part, by the online work of Virginia man Brian Sodergren, at least some of those passengers will eschew the machines in favor of TSA pat-downs. Sodergren tapped the Internet and social media to create optoutday.com to protest what's been called a government invasion of Americans' civil liberties.
"The goal of National Opt Out Day is to send a message to our lawmakers that we demand change. We have a right to privacy and buying a plane ticket should not mean that we're guilty until proven innocent. This day is needed because many people do not understand what they consent to when choosing to fly," he said on the site.
A YouTube video showing two men removing a young boy's shirt to check him for prohibited materials has been seen by more than 730,000 people. A search for "TSA" on YouTube brought up almost 6,400 results on Tuesday morning. Similarly, a search for "TSA" on Twitter generated a flurry of links and posts, including the tale of a male bladder cancer survivor who was covered in urine after an overly aggressive search; jokes and sexual innuendo; urban legends about the imaging machines; Congress members exclusion from the screening; and questions about hygiene and whether screeners change gloves between searches.
EPIC -- the Electronic Privacy Information Center -- has an online form where passengers can report incidents with TSA agents and scanners.
"As people learn more about the new security procedures, their opinions become much less favorable. And if travelers saw the images that the body scanners actually capture (and the zoom-in capabilities that TSA officials have), they would be outraged," said Marc Rotenberg, EPIC president, on his Facebook page.
The TSA, which initially stated it would not budge, has shown some signs of relenting. After airline pilots and flight attendants protested, it has given them a waiver from the additional security procedures while they are on duty.
"We welcome feedback and comments on the screening procedures from the traveling public, and we will work to make them as minimally invasive as possible while still providing the security that the American people want and deserve. We are constantly evaluating and adapting our security measures, and as we have said from the beginning, we are seeking to strike the right balance between privacy and security," said John Pistole, TSA administrator, in a statement. "We all wish we lived in a world where security procedures at airports weren't necessary but that just isn't the case."
The TSA itself turned to social media, in one instance posting video on YouTube to support its side of a confrontation with a radio host.
Although a Nov. 15 poll showed 81% of respondents supported the full-body x-ray machines, the explosion of information on social media, websites, and traditional news media apparently is shifting public opinion. A new ABC News/Washington Post poll released on Monday found 64% of respondents support enhanced scanners, but 50% said the aggressive pat downs go too far.
Health, as well as privacy, were a concern. Although 52% were not worried about serious health issues, 48% of respondents think the imaging machines pose a risk or are unsure about the devices, the study said. Americans said behavior, travel history, and nationality should be the top three factors used to profile, according to the study, which was produced by Langer Research Associates.
"Eighty-six percent say personal behavior should be a factor, and 78% say a passenger's travel history should be included in his or her security profile. Fewer, but 55%, favor including a passenger's nationality, and half would include his or her personal appearance," the report found. "Other potential elements, however, garner majority opposition as elements to include in a security profile. Fifty-nine percent oppose using a passenger's race or religion, and 65% say sex should not be a factor."