US airport body scanners touch a nerve

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The Independent Travel

An American traveler who refused to have his groin patted down before boarding a plane has become a folk hero for opponents of full body scanners and other invasive checks.

Footage of John Tyner's confrontation with a San Diego airport official over the weekend went viral after being posted on YouTube.

"If you touch my junk I am going to have you arrested," Tyner, 31, threatens the Transport Security Administration officer, in reference to his genitals.

A poll out Tuesday showed eight of 10 Americans support the full body X-ray machines being installed across the country to check under passengers' clothes. Under the new rules, those refusing to submit must undergo the kind of extensive hand search that Tyner also declined.

But although Americans back tougher security - especially in the wake of last year's attempt by a passenger to ignite explosives hidden in his underwear - growing numbers worry their rights are being trampled in the process.

So far 65 US airports have deployed so-called naked scanners. The coming holiday season, running from Thanksgiving to New Year's, will put these to a crucial test of public opinion.

Already the Internet blogosphere is buzzing with talk of a "national opt-out day" on November 24, the eve of Thanksgiving. Fliers would deliberately snarl the system by insisting on hand searches over scanners.

Another core of opposition has emerged among pilots who fear potential health hazards from being forced repeatedly to pass through the machines.

Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University, says society is entering virgin technological and ethical territory.

"The scanner's ability to penetrate is metaphorically powerful. It's invading privacy in all kinds of new ways," he told AFP.

"Balancing that out, there is the other really basic, powerful argument, which is how you remain safe in the sky in the age of tiny weaponry and concealed bombs."

Unlike the "X-ray glasses" sold in joke shops, the new scanners really do see through people's clothes, revealing whether they are carrying any well hidden object - but also, of course, their privates.

Although the TSA insists the pictures will not make it into the public domain, activists say they are not convinced.

On Tuesday, US technology blog Gizmodo published photos of what it said were images of people snapped by a naked scanner at a Florida courthouse.

The scanner in question had a lower resolution than those used in airports, not showing, for example, the outlines of genitalia.

But Gizmodo said the fact these pictures were leaked "almost guarantees that others will be seeing similar images in the future."

Huffington Post columnist Jay Michaelson railed against the "outrageous expansions of the police state."

"We have gotten to the point where detailed photos of our genitalia are taken every time we fly home to visit Grandma for Christmas," he wrote. "Or, alternatively, as John Tyner learned, you can have a stranger run his (or her) hands up to your genitals."

TSA Administrator John Pistole says he understands why people are upset, but "everybody who gets on a flight wants to be sure the people around them have been properly screened," he told lawmakers Tuesday.

One thing the TSA may have to adjust is the way it handles alarmed passengers like Tyner.

As noted by Daily News columnist Joanna Molloy, the TSA official's instructions to Tyner sounded like something from a dodgy massage parlor.

"We are going to be doing a groin check. That means I am going to place my hand on your hip, my other hand on your inner thigh. Slowly go up and slide down," the official says in the popular YouTube footage.

After his outburst, Tyner was told to leave the airport and threatened with prosecution.

Rich Hanley, professor of journalism at Quinnipiac University, said society will just have to get used to the new reality.

"I do think the scanners are going to stay and it's just another indignity that we will put up with when we travel."

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