The TSA is instituting new regulations for airport security pat-downs, and the techniques are reportedly so invasive that the agency preemptively warned local police to expect calls from concerned travelers.
The transportation agency has so far declined to explain what exactly the new procedures entail, with a spokesperson saying that publicizing details could “aid those who wish to do travelers harm.” The agency did, however, describe the new procedures as more “comprehensive,” and according to Bloomberg, which reported that it obtained a relevant memo from an airport trade association, the procedures involve a shift from agents using the back of the hand during pat-downs to using the front of the hand on passengers who test positive for explosives during routine swab screenings.
The agency previously said the shift is “intended to reduce the cognitive burden on [employees] who previously had to choose from various pat-down procedures depending on the type of screening lane.” The memo reportedly said that the TSA anticipated the changes could prompt passengers to call 911 and report “abnormal” frisking.
“Due to this change, TSA asked [field security directors] to contact airport law enforcement and brief them on the procedures in case they are notified that a passenger believes a [TSA employee] has subjected them to an abnormal screening practice,” the memo from the Airports Council International-North America reportedly said.
It’s unclear how many people per year test positive for explosives, and the agency doesn’t track how many passengers receive pat-downs, but about 2 million people pass through U.S. airports daily. Several common substances, from soap to heart medicine to fertilizer, can trigger false positives for passengers who have recently come into contact with them — or have simply come into contact with someone else who has recently come into contact with them. TSA agents themselves can trigger false positives if they do not change their gloves between screenings.
“As with any technology, occasional false positives are possible,” the TSA said in a 2013 statement after a woman was detained in a private room for more than 15 minutes because she had applied a skin lotion containing nitroglycerin. If that were to happen today, the TSA warns, the woman would notice a difference.
“People who in the past would have gotten a pat-down that wasn’t involved,” a TSA spokesperson told Bloomberg, “will notice that the [new] pat-down is more involved.”