Dear TSA, My Football Preferences and Vacation Plans are None of your Business: A First-Hand Experience With the TSA’s “Chat-Downs”

I was scheduled to return from my summer vacation at 6 a.m. Sunday morning flying out of Vermont’s Burlington International Airport in a state most often thought to be ahead of the civil liberties curve. If you’ve ever had a crack-of-dawn flight, you can relate to my blurry eyed exhaustion after waking up at 3:30 a.m. to make it to the airport with enough time for what we now consider to be the standard, if annoying, airport security rigmarole. I expected to have to strip off my belt and sweatshirt, take off my shoes, show my ID, and be subjected to a naked body scan or all-too-personal pat down.  What I didn’t expect was a full-on TSA interrogation about my summer vacation before I even reached the identification checkpoint.

That morning the security line was far longer than usual; my husband and I slowly snaked along the line dividers as folks began pulling out their toothpaste and laptops. As we got closer to the front of the line, I noticed a TSA agent stationed in front of the ID check, just outside of the line dividers, with no apparent assignment other than to chat with the waiting passengers. 

As we inched closer, I heard the chatty agent try to strike up a conversation with the man in front of us about his New England Patriots sweatshirt. “Hey, the Pats are playing in a preseason game with the Eagles on Monday, huh?  I’m an Eagles fan myself.” In classic New England style, the questioned passenger shrugged disinterestedly, muttered “whatever,” and shuffled along. (I say this as New Englander myself.) My first thought was, “what a rude way to treat this poor agent who is just trying to do his job.” 

The agent then turned to me with grin that was a bit perky for even my taste given the early hour.  “So where are you folks off to?” he energetically inquired. 

I like to think that I’m a friendly person, so I answered him, expecting a brief innocuous exchange about the Washington DC heat and the scourge of Capitol Hill gridlock. Instead, the agent responded to my answer with a barrage of questions about where in Vermont we had stayed, how long we had traveled, and why we had traveled there. I could feel a suspicious expression involuntarily creep across my face. The New Englander inside me was screaming “you don’t know this person from a hole in the wall and you certainly don’t want to divulge to him the details of your family vacation!” And yet it seemed that the more discomfort I expressed, the more persistent the agent’s questioning became, following us down the line, grilling me unrelentingly about our vacation plans and baggage status.  

When we finally passed through security, I turned to my husband and asked, “What on earth was that all about?”  My husband shrugged and suggested that perhaps the agent was just a chatty guy.  To me it felt entirely inappropriate and intrusive.  

It was only after I fully reentered the world of easy Internet access that I saw that while I was on vacation I had missed a news breaking New York Times article about the “controversial” use of "behavioral officers" at Logan Airport in Boston, Massachusetts. I don’t work on airline security issues for the ACLU, so I hadn’t known about this program. According to the Times, “behavioral assessments” were being used at Logan not only to scan the lines of passengers for unusual activity, but also to “speak individually with each passenger and gauge their reactions while asking about their trip or for other information." Sound familiar? And it turns out that this airport “assessment” procedure is not only an inappropriate invasion of privacy, as I experienced. According to U.S. federal officials, it’s also leading to increased racial profiling, in part in response to managerial pressure to meet certain threshold referral numbers. Of course, many minority communities have been suffering discriminatory secondary checks and unjustified delays at airports for years.  

Apparently it’s not enough for TSA to examine every inch of our bodies and personal effects; they are now asserting the right to search our conscience through pre-boarding cross-examinations. And to what end? The Government Accountability Office concluded in a 2010 report that no behavioral detection program has ever been scientifically validated. There is also considerable doubt among scientists about the usefulness of the methodology with behavioral researchers asserting that TSA agents “would achieve similar hit rates if they flipped a coin." 

To be clear, I have nothing but respect for friendly TSA agents who do their best to make the security experience more tolerable by making small talk with impatient passengers. I have nothing but smiles for the ID checker that cracks a joke about my license picture or the enormity of my carryon. But there is a world of difference between friendly small talk and unwelcome interrogation about my personal business. I never want to have to second-guess my travel plans and itinerary or consider how they might appear to a government agent.

I won’t be volunteering any more personal information to the next TSA agent that interrogates me while I’m in line for airport security. The next time I encounter a TSA “behavioral officer” I intend to invoke a tried and true New England adage that served my ancestors well: Mind your own business. 

Add a comment (12)
Read the Terms of Use

Damion

Devon Chaffee,

How can you seriously be posting on the ACLU web-site, that you have respect for the TSA or even any of its people who do nothing but violate the natural/Constitutional Rights of every American - especially without suspicion of any wrong doing.

The fact that they work for the TSA should force them to lose their US Citizenship-since they already have shown their hatred of the US and the US Constitution, they won't mind forfeiting the 4th, 5th, 6th and 8th Amendments so that they can be deported to North Korea, where if we as American's are lucky they will be tortured and sent to forced labor camps for the remainder of their days, where they can reflect on their behavior.

Anonymous

Take the bus lady...

F'r example...

"...if they ask you where you’ve come from, you could say ‘Behind me,’ and if they asked where you’re going, you’d say ‘In front of me.’" --Stardust, Neil Gaiman

Anonymous

Did you mean "personal" information???

Chris Bray

So why does the ACLU not litigate over this program?

Anonymous

Ms. Chaffee, I am certainly sympathetic to the sentiment you articulate in your short essay, but my question to you is, When is the ACLU going to take action against the TSA? Our Constitutionally guaranteed protection against unreasonable search has been shredded by this agency. Unless of course you and the ACLU believe virtual strip searches and the groping of our private parts is reasonable for free people who travel for business or pleasure within a free country. I have waited and hoped for several years now for the ACLU to take legal action on this issue, apparently in vain.

Anonymous

I experienced a similar chatty cathy at the Long Beach, CA airport about a year and a half ago. It was a very early morning flight; hadnt had coffee. The TSA agent in line kept asking me all these personal questions that made zero sense. I finally said to her, "Why are you asking me all these questions?" She just smiled and shrugged, "Just asking." HIGHLY annoying. I certainly didn't feel safer. And for the record, I'm a middle-aged white guy.

Barry

Americans will one day wake up to the fact that Al Qaeda and any other terrorist groups have won, by radically changing the life of every citizen with greatly enhanced security measures. Many Americans live in fear. Anything happens, was it terrorist-related - the question was even raised by some during the shooting near the Empire State Building. I gave up traveling to the US when, among other things, the silver paper on my pack of mints set off the alarm. If security can't tell the difference between a pack of mints and a bomb then it's time to be concerned.

Micky Fernandez

Please keep in mind that the TSA agent recently lost his mother. How do I know this? Because ALL mothers of TSA agents kill themselves once they learn that they have given birth to child molesters, vermin, cockroaches, slime and human feces.
The worst part of it is that TSA agents make IRS agents look good in comparison!

Anonymous

I really hope the ACLU doesn't have the same respect you do for the TSA as they have been known to violate our constitutional rights and this is just another of they methods to violate our rights. I do have a question though. I am shy and don't look people straight in the eye when I talk which I've read is something that will alert a behavioral officer and like you, I also do not want to be questioned about my travel plans. What rights do we have when dealing with a TSA behavioral officer. I recently had one greet me at the airport and could tell she felt uneasy with me and even though I was in the traditional scanning line, I was forced to go in the backscatter x-ray machine and believe this may be the reason. What are our rights when dealing with these behavioral officers. Refusing to talk to them or answer their questions would make them even more suspicious and you may find yourself detained so are there really any options. Even if we decide not to fly, the VIPR program will eventually stop people at roadblocks, bus and train stations, and even mall parking lots to find "terrorists". Is there anything else we can do other than hope one day the TSA is abolished and return to life before the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Pages

Sign Up for Breaking News