2/13/2012 update: This story has led to new legislation being introduced in the U.S. Senate. Click here for that part of the story.
DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) - Women passengers complain that TSA agents are targeting them for extra screening.
The Transportation Security Administration has a policy to randomly select people for extra screening, but some female passengers are complaining. They believe there is nothing "random" about the way they were picked.
A Dallas woman says TSA agents repeatedly asked her to step back into a body scanning machine at DFW International Airport. "I feel like I was totally exposed," said Ellen Terrell, who is a wife and mother. "They wanted a nice good look."
When Ellen Terrell and her husband, Charlie, flew out of DFW Airport several months ago, Terrell says she was surprised by a question a female TSA agent asked her. "She says to me, 'Do you play tennis?' And I said, 'Why?' She said, 'You just have such a cute figure.'"
Terrell says she walked into the body scanner which creates an image that a TSA agent in another room reviews. Terrell says she tried to leave, but the female agent stopped her. "She says, 'Wait, we didn't get it,'" recalls Terrell, who claims the TSA agent sent her back a second time and even a third. But that wasn't good enough.
After the third time, Terrell says even the agent seemed frustrated with her co-workers in the other room. "She's talking into her microphone and she says, 'Guys, it is not blurry, I'm letting her go. Come on out.'"
When TSA agents do a pat down on a traveler, only female agents are allowed to touch female passengers. But the TSA allows male agents to view the images of female passengers.
Ellen and Charlie Terrell are convinced that the extra screenings were unnecessary, possibly even voyeuristic. "I think it's sexual harassment if you're run through there a third or fourth time," responded Texas State Representative Lon Burnam of Fort Worth. "And this is not the first time I have heard about it," said Burnam, who adds that a number of his constituents have voiced concerns about privacy.
CBS 11 News dug through more than 500 records of TSA complaints and found a pattern of women who believe that there was nothing random about the way they were selected for extra screening. TSA redacted the names of the passengers who complained, but here are quotations from several complaints.
- "I feel I was targeted by the TSA employee to go through the see-you-naked machine because I am a semi-attractive female."
- "The screener appeared to enjoy the process of picking someone rather than doing true random screening. I felt this was inappropriate. A woman behind me was also "randomly selected."
- "TSA staff 'trolling' the lines looking for people to pull out was unprofessional."
- "After that, I saw him going to the private room where x-rays are, to speak to the guy on that room."
- "I know he went to that room to see my naked body through the machine with the other guy."
- "When I looked around, I saw that there were only women that were "told" to go through this machine. There were no men."
- "Maklng American citizens unwilling victims of a peep show by TSA employees using full body imaging devices is an over-the-top invasion of privacy to which I strenuously object."
CBS 11 News first contacted the TSA in mid-January to request a one-on-one interview on camera. A TSA spokesperson told us that no one was available for that kind of interview. The TSA held a news conference the following week. "Privacy issues is the main point," said Amy Williams, Federal Security Director for Dallas Love Field.
At the news conference, the TSA announced that DFW and Love Field airports now have all-new scanning machines. The updated technology shows a only a generic-body outline which highlights potential threats. "With the old technology, we had to have an image room that was separate from the equipment," says Williams. The older scanners, which create more detailed individual x-ray like images, are still used in 39 airports across the country.
"It just makes me wonder what's going on. Are they doing this all over the country? They're missing their focus," said Charlie Terrell.
"You just feel like your privacy has been violated," says Ellen Terrell.
Ellen Terrell told CBS 11 News that she did not file a complaint because she did not realize that she had that option. Passengers may not be aware that they also can opt out of the scanner by requesting a pat-down screening instead.
The TSA provided CBS 11 News with the following statement in response to our investigation.
"TSA does not profile passengers. All of our millimeter wave technology units including those in Dallas have been upgraded with additional privacy enhancements that no longer display passenger-specific images. Even prior to this upgrade, officers reviewing the images were located in a separate room and would have never seen the passenger being screened. To further ensure passenger privacy and anonymity, a privacy filter was applied to blur all images. The technology remains optional to all passengers." -- Kristin Lee, Assistant Administrator, Office of Strategic Communications & Public Affairs, Transportation Security Administration
A TSA spokesperson told CBS 11 News that it is not protocol to send a passenger back into a scanner more than once. He said the agency takes all complaints seriously and urges consumers to file complaints if they have a problem. He said airports store video of checkpoints for at least 30 days and complaints filed within that timeframe may be reviewed using the video. He added that passengers can notify a TSA supervisor on location to make a complaint.
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