x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

'Don't touch my junk' video ignites security debate

An angry man's airport security video of his refusal to submit to a body search has become an internet sensation, adding fuel to the backlash against heightened security measures at US airports.

WASHINGTON // When John Tyner, a software engineer from California, decided to record his run-in with Transportation Security Administration officers at San Diego airport on his mobile phone, he could not have known it would place him at the centre of a storm of controversy over newly increased security measures at US airports.

With the Thanksgiving holiday looming this week, traditionally some of the busiest travelling days in the US calendar, the TSA has been trying to take the sting out of the uproar. Promising to strike a balance between security and privacy, John Pistole, the TSA head, told CNN on Sunday that it was a matter for passengers to "know that everybody else on that plane has been screened thoroughly".

But Mr Pistole refused to back down on the new security pat-down procedure introduced on November 1 that caused the furore in the first place. Prompted by an incident last year when a passenger had a bomb sewn into his underwear, as well as the discovery in the UAE and England last month of explosives on cargo planes, the new guidelines entitle TSA officers to engage in an intimate physical search that allows them to touch all parts of passengers' bodies.

The only alternative available to passengers is to go through an Advanced Imaging Scanner that allows a machine to see through clothes and has been dubbed the "naked body scanner" by activists. Those who refuse both could face a fine of up to US$10,000 (Dh36,729).

It has not gone down well in America where the procedure is being criticised as unnecessarily intrusive and an attack on basic freedoms by politicians and members of the public alike. It was certainly too much for Mr Tyner, who, in refusing to submit to the body search, told security officials in San Diego that, "If you touch my junk, I'll have you arrested". That struck a chord with many.

Online, Mr Tyner's recording almost immediately went viral, attracting a quarter of a million hits on YouTube after being featured heavily on all the major US networks. It has spawned its own rap song, "The TSA Hustle - Don't touch my junk", and a line of clothing featuring T-shirts emblazoned with the logo, "Don't touch my junk… and don't touch my kid's junk either".

It has also spurned a grassroots movement to declare November 24, the day before Thanksgiving, a "National Opt-Out Day", urging air passengers to opt out of the body-scanning procedure in order to force the enhanced pat-down and insist on it being done in full view of other passengers.

The object, according to the recently established website of the group, is to send a message to legislators that "buying a plane ticket should not mean that we're guilty until proven innocent".

It is a sentiment that Tamara Essayad, 25, a Palestinian-American law student at Howard University, agrees with: "This is an invasion of privacy. It's uncomfortable and demeaning and it is most probably going to be targeted at a group of 'randomly selected' people that I am included in. Finding a balance between invasion of privacy and security is delicate but it can be done. It's not either/or."

Among officials, conservative Republicans have been especially critical of the measure.

"I don't think the roll-out was good and the application is even worse," John Mica, a Republican congressman from Florida, said on Sunday on CNN. "This does need to be refined," he said.

Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, blamed Barack Obama, the US president, for introducing the measure just before Thanksgiving and not "making the case" to the American public.

"There's no reason for them to be doing body searches of six-year-old, 12-year-old girls travelling from Louisiana to visit their grandparents," he said.

Mr Jindal, of Indian origin, advocated using intelligence procedures to focus searches on specific individuals. "We're not talking about profiling, but use the information. Don't let political correctness stop them," he said.

Democrats are also uncomfortable with the measure. Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, in response to a question on whether she would submit to the pat down, said she would avoid it if she could. "I mean, who wouldn't?" she said on Sunday.

Nevertheless, the TSA is so far continuing with the plan. Mr Pistole yesterday said that the technology utilised was "not only safe, it's vital to aviation security and a critical measure to thwart potential terrorist attacks".

As for National Opt-Out Day, Mr Pistole was incredulous.

"On the eve of a major national holiday and less than one year after al Qa'eda's failed attack last Christmas Day, it is irresponsible for a group to suggest travellers opt out of the very screening that may prevent an attack using non-metallic explosives."