Why I will avoid flying from now on

I just got back from a trip to Sunnyvale for YUIConf 2010.

Since I work remotely, I typically fly to California every few months for a week in the office. I’ve always had decent luck at not getting selected for “enhanced” screening by the TSA, and this trip was no different. I managed to slip through unscathed, but only barely.

The Terminal B checkpoint at SJC now has a backscatter machine next to each metal detector. Of the two lines that were active when I went through security yesterday evening, one backscatter machine was in active use and another was roped off. I managed to get myself into the line with the roped-off machine, but even so, TSA agents were selecting people from both lines for additional screening.

I wasn’t selected, but as I was putting my shoes back on inside the checkpoint, I noticed that a woman behind me (blonde, wearing a spandex sports bra and shorts, with her midriff exposed) who had already gone through either the metal detector or the backscatter machine (I didn’t see which) had been selected for further screening by a male TSA agent.

She didn’t seem to be objecting, and I didn’t stick around to see what happened, but unless this woman was hiding explosives literally inside her body, this additional screening didn’t make anything safer for anyone.

Until today, I was under the impression that if I were to refuse both a backscatter scan and a pat-down, I would still be free to leave the airport and find another mode of travel. Then I saw this well-documented blog post containing both video (albeit pointed at the ceiling) and audio of a man attempting to do just that and being detained and then threatened with fines and a civil suit simply for trying to leave the airport after refusing to allow a TSA agent to give him a pat-down.

That changes the entire game. Now, merely entering the line at a security checkpoint apparently makes you a prisoner of the TSA. You either do whatever they tell you to, even if it means allowing them to shoot x-rays at you and scrutinize your genitalia, or you pay a $10,000 fine and fight a legal battle.

Sunnyvale isn’t far enough from Portland that I’m willing to give up both my civil liberties and my dignity to get there. I’ll drive from now on.