Terminal Turmoil

Airport security checkpoints should not be “junk” yards

Flying may still be the best -- or at least fastest -- way to get from Point A to Point B in the United States, but anyone who’s done it lately can aver that the process is not without its hassles. At best, the boarding process for public flights has lost whatever glamour it might once have had; at worst, it can leave those involved feeling violated or indignant -- all in the name of security.

Well, to borrow a phrase, there’s an app for that.

In an age in which the expression “Don’t touch my ‘junk’” can overnight become part of the national idiom -- which it did, showing up emblazoned across T-shirts, coffee mugs, bumper stickers and refrigerator magnets after 31-year-old software programmer John Tyner uttered the words to Transportation Security Administration screeners at San Diego Airport Nov. 13 when they told him he was about to undergo a “groin check” -- the only real wonder is that it took some enterprising app producer two months to make this particular offering available to the appbuying public.

Called TSAzr (pronounced “TAYzer”), the app is designed specifically to enable those who fly on domestic airlines to share and rate their TSA screening experiences at all 450-plus U.S. airports at which the agency has staff. With the app -- designed for the iOS platform to work with the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch -- passengers can provide information such as if they went through a body scanner, received one of Homeland Security’s “new and approved” full-frontal, all-body patdowns, and, yeah, whether they had their “junk” touched in the process.

Firsthand Experiences
The app was released mid-January by Elguji Software LLC, a Vancouver, Wash.-based company that specializes in developing crowdsourcing software for corporations. In its first week on the virtual shelves at Apple’s App Store, TSAzr was selected as one of the coveted “New & Noteworthy” downloads available, which Elguji adviser Bruce Elgort said was both an honor for the company and an indication that its product had touched a chord.

“The crowd always wants to talk and tell their story,” Elgort said. “This app allows them to do that -- and then to share that experience by also posting it to their Facebook wall, if they want.

But it’s not just about whether you got your quote-unquote ‘junk’ touched or you went through a body scan, because it also allows you to give them [TSA] a star rating, telling how your overall experience was at that screening point -- good, bad, or indifferent.”

According to Elgort, initial buyers of the 99-cent app tended to be among the angrier members of the flying public, which he said was to be expected. In fact, it was because Elgort himself was among that exasperated populace that TSAzr even exists.

He said his moment of checkpoint chagrin happened around the same time Tyner was protecting his jewels in San Diego and near-simultaneously spawning the new catchphrase entry on UrbanDictionary.com.

“I was traveling to Boston back in the fall and went through my first body scan,” Elgort said, “and that was just like . . . how would you say it? I understand the purpose of performing screenings, but what actually took place was just not explained, and it was just weird, man. It was like cattle herding. If I treated my friends and family like that, they would not be friendly. I’ve been through Israeli security many times, and this was far worse than that.”

Afterward, Elgort found himself wishing there were a way to sound off, warn others, or maybe even make a difference. And, soon, the app was born.

The Crowd is Watching
Speaking just days after TSAzr’s debut, Elgort noted that the app was only just gaining traction and that, to be fair and useful, the incoming data would need to “normalize” a bit, but early returns from users were showing Jacksonville International Airport to be the “junk”-touchiest of all the TSA-staffed sites, followed on the negative end by airports in Detroit and San Francisco.

On the positive side of things, Portland International, Richmond International, Cecil Field (also located in Jacksonville) and Bradley International airports were being rated as the most checkpoint-friendly. Airports receiving the greatest sheer numbers of ratings were Seattle-Tacoma, Raleigh-Durham and JFK.

The most any app creator can hope is that his idea will go viral. If that were to happen with TSAzr, the result would truly merge crowdsourcing with government transparency, Elgort said.

He added that he could envision online travel sites using the app’s accrued data in their booking processes, giving travelers a heads up while still in the tripplanning stage. Presumably, another goal would be to not give actual terrorists the same heads up.

Potentially the greatest use for TSAzr, though, is reflected in a headline that ran over a press release Elguji issued to announce the app’s release; it said: “TSA Gets a New Watchdog Group -- Everyone.” It’s a sentiment (or hope) that suggests the more users the app attracts, the more humanely TSA staff might wield their governmentsanctioned powers, knowing they’re being, in effect, graded.

Without such a recourse as TSAzr provides -- or something similar to it -- the goings on at airport checkpoints remain decidedly one-sided affairs that leave the flying public with little other option than to accept the status quo or echo Tyner and face the consequences. And meanwhile, as Elgort observes, “We’re all scared to go through those lines. The thought with this is that it might help to share those experiences, because otherwise it just sucks, you know?”

This article originally appeared in the March 2011 issue of Security Today.

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