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Airport screeners go for the groin

Security theater pat-down cock-up

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US airline security staff have introduced a new pat-down technique that might be familiar to folks who request "extras" in a massage parlour.

Punters — i.e., passengers and civil liberties groups — are far from ecstatic over these new moves, variously describing them as "horribly invasive" and "humiliating".

Passengers who object to going through full-body imaging scanners were previously allowed to opt for a "pat-down". Now the only alternative will be a rather more intimate laying-on of hands.

After tests of their new pat-down — or feel-up — approach at Boston's Logan International Airport, the US Transportation Security Administration declared itself sufficiently satisfied to roll out the new measures, which will involve security staff sliding their hands over passengers' bodies, to all 450 of its airports.

Passenger-rights organisations are not amused. Kate Hinni, founder of the non-profit FlyersRights consumer group, is widely reported as claiming that the new searches amount to a "foreplay pat-down" that will "feel like a moral issue" for many travellers.

Speaking of the choice between exposing oneself in the new body-scanner peep show or opting for a rub-down, she said: "It's like having to choose the lesser of two evils: both are horribly invasive."

One passenger who was less than satisfied with the result was Rosemary Fitzpatrick, a CNN employee who claimed that she was subjected to a pat-down at the Orlando, Florida, airport on Wednesday after her underwire bra set off a magnetometer. She was then taken to a private area where a female screener ran her hands around her breasts, over her stomach, buttocks, and inner thighs, and briefly touched her crotch.

Ms Fitzpatrick, who has subsequently complained about the experience — and the fact that passengers were not warned of it in advance — stated: "I felt helpless, I felt violated, and I felt humiliated." She was, she said, reduced to tears at the checkpoint.

So is this all accidental? A cock-up on the part of transport officials with wandering hands?

Not according to Atlantic correspondent Jeffery Goldberg, who is ordinarily fiercely supportive of the security brigade.

Writing of his own recent touching-up by security staff, he records the response when he asked one of the TSA guards at Baltimore-Washington International Airport if they were looking forward to conducting the full-on pat-downs.

According to Goldberg, the agent told him: "Nobody's going to do it ... once they find out that we're going to do [it]."

Goldberg suggested that the TSA are adopting this approach in the hope that people would prefer the full-body scan to a grope from a stranger. The agent allegedly agreed, telling him: "That's what we're hoping for. We're trying to get everyone into the machine."

Whether the TSA will eventually get its way on this issue remains unclear. Passenger resistance is claimed to be great. The technique has been dubbed "Pat down search abuse" by the American Civil Liberties Union, which is now calling onair travellers to send them their personal stories and information about their experiences during screening. ®

Bootnote

When we asked the Home Office whether they had any plans to get more intimate with passengers travelling to and from the UK, a spokesman told us that he was not aware of any such plans — but he'll get back to us if anything comes up.

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