Friday, September 6, 2013

Why I Opt Out

To fly nowadays you need to go through some pretty serious security. You've probably noticed. 

But did you know that you can opt out? Well, you can opt out of the full body scanner, anyway, if you are selected to go through it. All you do is say "I would like to opt out" to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agent who directs you to go through the full body scanner. Then instead of going through the scanner you get an enhanced pat down.

I opt out every time I fly. It's a protest.

While 9/11 prompted an understandable increase in airline security, additional security comes at a cost. If you want more security, you are going to have to give up some freedom and pay for that security, too, in money and time. After 9/11 there was (and continued to be) a big increase in security measures after every (perceived) threat at the expense of some freedom.

I believe we have gone too far, trading too little security for too much freedom at too high a cost.

Bureaucratic Behavior

Benevolent public officials and bureaucrats should provide the optimal amount of security that we as a society demand, right? But if something goes wrong, the bureaucrat or public official in charge will be blamed for not doing enough. He would probably lose his job. To ensure his job, he increases security. He can do this without personally bearing practically any of the cost. Taxpayers pay for it (as long as Congress authorizes his funding).

Because of misaligned incentives, unchecked public officials will always ask for too much funding, implement regulatory policies at too high of a cost, and restrict freedoms too much.

I don't think the TSA is checked enough.

What About the NSA?

The bigger invader of privacy is the TSA not the NSA. It's no secret the NSA has been in the news lately because of the data it collects. There has been a lot of talk about invasion of privacy, search and seizure, and what kind of information government computers, agents, or analysts should have access to. Well, the TSA is worse than the NSA on almost every dimension. The NSA needs warrants issued and renewed regularly by FISA courts in order to just get metadata because it might collect information on Americans. Congress also checks it. The TSA does not need a warrant to get actual data on actual Americans standing right in front of them. NSA computers look at US metadata (except when procedure is violated). Actual TSA agents look at everyone's data every time you fly. The NSA targets foreign traffic, collecting most of its US data as a byproduct. The TSA targets American traffic intentionally. The NSA does not noticeably interfere with your use of the internet. The TSA does noticeably interfere with your use of transportation networks.

Is it Worth It to Protest?

I think it is worth it to protest.

The TSA does note the protest numbers. When I flew back to Chicago on Monday, I noticed the TSA agents were marking the number of opt outs. I was the 11th that day at that security station. Also, other people see you, which may encourage others to do the same or at least encourage others who are concerned about privacy that they are not alone.There has already been some success. Opt outs and privacy concerns were cited in the decision to move to displaying cartoon representations of people that highlight problem areas rather than the actual x-ray photos.

Yes, protesting is costly (the pat down can be very uncomfortable for both you and the agent and it may delay you), but it wouldn't be a credible protest if there wasn't some personal cost involved. It shows you care about the issue.

If you feel opting out isn't enough, you can also file formal complaints (I've done that before, too), mention security procedures concerns on airlines post-flight surveys (I've done that, as well), or write to your Congressman or the ACLU (I haven't done that, yet. Well, about this issue, anyway).

But at the very least, if you feel the government has traded off too much freedom for too little security, I hope  the next time you fly that you will opt out, too.

What About Radiation Concerns?

Many people also cite radiation concerns when opting out. And I have, too. But it shouldn't be needed. Freedom, search and seizure, and liberty concerns should be enough. That they aren't for most people is concerning.

Having said that, the fact that information on the amount of radiation the devices emit was very difficult to find when the machines were introduced was very concerning to me. When the machines were first installed, and a TSA agent asked me why I wanted to opt out since the machines were "safe," I asked him what the level of radiation was. How did it compare to dental x-rays that we are limited to getting only once a year? He didn't know. He also checked some papers, and they didn't say. After the flight I checked the TSA's website and did a web search. Again, no information; no studies. This is just one more example of the agency not having to bear a (radiation) cost, so they don't think anyone else should bother about it, either.

Of course, since then, the TSA has replaced most of the backscatter radiation machines in favor of machines that use a less dangerous type of radiation. Now there is information about the level of radiation of those old machines and more testing has been done. When the machines are properly maintained and operated, the radiation levels are about an order of magnitude lower than what you get with a dental x-ray. But dental x-rays are targeted at your mouth while you wear a lead jacket; full body scans radiate your whole body, many people fly often, and radiation damage is additive*. So it's not exactly zero effect. Of course, the levels are still much, much lower than the additional amount of exposure to radiation you get in the course of a flight from the thinner atmosphere, so it's not a huge effect, either.

But, the fact that information was generally hard to come by until the old machines were scheduled to be replaced says something, too.

* Probably. The linear no-threshold model is disputed at low levels of radiation. 

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