(And Why You’re Wrong to Passively Comply with Invasive Techniques)

“Do you have a medical condition?” the airport officer in charge of scanning asks, barely waiting for the answer before hailing her unfortunate colleague who will be assigned the unenviable task of having to deal with me.

“No.” I answer sufficiently, but politely, after admittedly disturbing what would otherwise be a completely systematic process of disrobing people both physically and digitally. This sad routine having been normalized by two decades of reminders of ‘the terrorist threat’ and the unspoken but crudely offensive implication that if we’re not in support of the security theater in its entirety, we’re on the side of the terrorists. Whoever they are.


The entire grotesque spectacle is not only an obvious affront to human dignity. By forcing travelers to surrender, hands high in the air in an abject gesture of helpless capitulation the system all but says “one of you tried to cause mischief by concealing banned substances in their underwear, so all of you now have to present their privates to this camera for inspection”. 

I abhor everything about the sad spectacle of thousands of passengers resigned to the degrading process that begins with waiting in an intentionally twisted line that enables them to look ahead and see the fate of their predecessors. When their turn comes up, someone physically directs them to one side or the other, often without eye contact. It’s almost a chore for some officers to have to explain that before stepping into the dreaded scanner they must, still in front of their peers, remove coats, belts, shoes and empty the contents of their pockets into a tray that itself was created, along with countless others in a plastic injection molding process.

At every step of the process there are camera signs to remind people that surveillance is in effect, crossed out cell phone images to indicate that they are not in an environment where they can call out, officers to enforce compliance and always the full view of others being put through the various stages of the livestock processing carousel. There is no privacy to be found here. Only the stench of people reduced to a vulnerable state of compliance. 

“Would you like a private pat-down?” my assigned officer asks. 

Consent! This is great. I decline, because I want to continue watching people visibly suspending their revulsion to the shameful process they are being forced to endure in the scanner. 

“I will be applying pressure to the inside of your thighs, back and chest…” the officer continues to robotically describe the “Advanced Pat-Down” process as he is required to do.

“Sounds good to me!” I say, cheerfully, hoping to be as disarming as possible.

“Please hold your arms our to the sides”. This sounds like music to my ears, as I watch the agricultural process continue to unfold and see that people who are not stretching their arms high enough for the scanner to capture what it needs to see, are asked to try again.

As I enjoy the brief massage, I try to catch the eye of recently disrobed passengers whose facial expressions and artificially accelerated movements betray the relief of having been forced to hold their breath and likely not think too much about the process they just survived. Not one makes eye contact with me. 

I want to think this is because they want to avoid facing a smug look of defiance but in all likelihood it’s simply that they kindly want to spare me what they think of as embarrassment. It’s very nice of people to think so and yet, to suppress thinking about the process much at all.

No doubt some might allow themselves to indulge in thinking that at any moment I might get pulled into a back room for what could amount to enhanced interrogation, or worse. What a story that would make for their families, and oh how much more compliant that would make their circles of acquaintances. But alas, it is only the vague suggestion that such treatment might be possible in civil, modern society that is sufficient to eliminate resistance to this bovine process.

 — — — — —

Weapons of influence: consistency, scarcity, authority, consistency, social proof

You might say “okay claudiu, we get that you find this process offensive, perhaps even degrading, but surely even for a person as insecure as you, it would be a stretch to make a case for bad privacy. What does this have to do with privacy?” 

Only everything. 

1948 hints that privacy is about dignity. this process was expressly designed to actively enhance compliance and passively degrade travelers.

Every single passenger is a champion for the process, making it more likely that his successor complies as well, and so it goes. I don’t want to spare a moment researching the history of psychological mechanisms of compliance, but rest assured that pedigree is long and sordid. This is not to say that people with sinister intentions created this process, but certainly people who know what they are doing have crafted an optimised a mechanism of compliance that rests as much on tacit consent as it does on the secrecy behind the underlying technology. 

Take for example the fact that at every turn, someone says “don’t worry, our officers don’t see your privates”. Rest assured, they’re nothing to write home about, but I’m certainly not embarrassed by my privates. It seems that most officers are more embarrassed about the process than I am. That’s not the point at all. The point, neighbours and friends, is that a camera is used to take a picture of you under your clothes and that image is processed to block where *it* thinks are your privates before displaying it to the officer. 

That camera sees, stores, processes and displays images of you while you’re being sold a story about how it’s all fine and you should be okay. Well, I might be okay with the process if I wasn’t being lied so, but that hasn’t yet happened. 

“Sorry for the trouble I caused” I say after being dismissed. “It’s no problem, we do this all the time” replies the officer. 

“I doubt it” I say to myself after having watched maybe 600 passengers pass through without a single one opting to be frisked.