Steve Peters

Experience Design

TSA's Brilliant Opt-Out Day PR Maneuver Proves That It's All Just Theater

So, most of you know that I've had a bone to pick with the TSA for the last few years, and that it all came to a head for me over the last few weeks, making me some sort of activist for one of the first times in my life, much to my own surprise. After recent new "security" policies involving the use of new backscatter machines and more invasive pat-downs, things seemed to reach a tipping point with the organization of things like National Opt-Out Day on the day before Thanksgiving, typically the busiest travel day of the year. All eyes were on the airports to see what bedlam would ensue. How long would the lines be? How vocal would the protesters be? Would there be fist-fights? Arrests? We all shuddered with antici-


So, what happened?

Seemingly nothing. If you were to believe the mainstream media, the whole thing fizzled. Lines were, in fact, shorter than normal. It seems the whole thing was much ado about nothing...But if you look closer, you'll realize that it was, if anything, the exact opposite. Two things clearly happened, if you care to look for the evidence: As a direct result of the awareness raised about the issue, travelers chose not to fly, and the TSA shut down the scanners at countless airports (see here and here for examples).

This was a brilliant, if not short-sighted, PR move by the TSA. But that's what's bothering me the most. Honestly, I've felt more and more like I'm living in some Alternate Reality USA lately, what with all the outright propaganda going on surrounding this issue, most notably on the TSA's own blog, which seems to have become very Ministry Of Information-like, with it's breathless denunciation of critics and promotion of select "facts" to prove that they're right and everyone else is wrong.

The fact is that, whether they admit to it or not, the TSA shut down most body scanners and drastically reduced random pat-downs on Opt-Out Day. All eyes were on the TSA all week, and they put on their best performance, proving to the world that they were efficient, friendly, and only concerned for our safety. But in doing so, they proved more definitively than ever that what they're doing has nothing at all to do with true safety and security, that it's all just Security Theater. They shut down the scanners and reduced pat-downs to not just make themselves look good, but because they can do so without jeopardizing our safety whatsoever. In essence, they pulled aside the curtain and gave us all a wink and a nod.

This is despicable.

I could go on and on about how this Security Theater isn't about our safety as much as it's about politicians covering their asses, but so many people have done a great job at this already (see this amazing recent NY Times Op-Ed by Bruce Schneier):

Neither the full-body scanners or the enhanced pat-downs are making anyone safer. They’re more a result of politicians and government appointees capitulating to a public that demands that “something must be done,” even when nothing should be done; and a government bureaucracy that is more concerned about the security of their careers if they fail to secure against the last attack than what happens if they fail anticipate the next one.

The most unfortunate part of all this is that it's exactly what the terrorists wanted to accomplish: Make us change our lifestyle and waste obscene amounts of money. Again from Bruce Schneier's recent post:

The economic strategy of jihad would go through refinement. Its initial phase linked terrorist attacks broadly to economic harm. A second identifiable phase, which al Qaeda pursued even as it continued to attack economic targets, is what you might call its "bleed-until-bankruptcy plan." Bin Laden announced this plan in October 2004, in the same video in which he boasted of the economic harm inflicted by 9/11. Terrorist attacks are often designed to provoke an overreaction from the opponent and this phase seeks to embroil the United States and its allies in draining wars in the Muslim world. The mujahideen "bled Russia for 10 years, until it went bankrupt," bin Laden said, and they would now do the same to the United States.

So look, all I can say is that this is real and it's serious, people. All I can do is my part to spread the word, raise awareness and sound the alarm that the emperor has no clothes.

And you don't need a backscatter machine to make him look that way.


PS-Despite what some folks say, this is NOT a partisan issue. Try to look past the right-wingers who seem to be running with this more than the left, for some reason that surprises and disappoints me (ok, it doesn't surprise me that much). It's a human rights issue, plain and simple.

And the government won't know when they've gone too far unless we tell them.

So tell them now...

Plus, some other ways you can make yourself heard:

  • Download and play the TSA Circus Music Soundtrack at TSA screening points.
  • If you have experienced a problem with TSA when flying, file a complaint at your checkpoint, call the TSA at 1-866-289-9673, and also use the Electronic Privacy Information Center's incident report to lodge your complaint: