TSA May Want To Flip Through Your Summer Reading Next Time You Fly

Image courtesy of Quinn Dombrowski

At this point, most travelers know that your electronics, your shoes, your food, and your liquids are going to have to come out of your bag (or off your person) and get extra screening just so you can get on a flight. But now, it seems books — good, old-fashioned paper books — may be joining that list.

The plan to check out your books and reading materials isn’t wholly new; rather, it’s the expansion of a test policy we’ve mentioned before. The TSA tried a pilot experiment back in May where travelers through the airport in Kansas City, MO were asked to remove paper items and notebooks from their bags. That test was halted after only a few days, but a similar program seems primed to expand.

The Week first reported on the book searches at the beginning of June. At that point passengers traveling through security checkpoints in Missouri and Sacramento were being required to take “all reading material and food” out of their carry-on bags and have it travel through separate bins.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly recently confirmed that the policy is likely to expand nationwide, leading the ACLU to object to the privacy concerns raised by having government agents scan your choice of reading material.

Theoretically, TSA agents aren’t looking at what your book is, or at any of the content inside it, but are instead simply flipping through in order to make sure that the pages are actually pages and not something like weapons.

ACLU senior policy analyst Jay Stanley wrote in a blog post that it was unclear whether books were being singled out as some kind of special threat, or whether they were being targeted because their size and composition makes them hard to distinguish from other physically-similar items (i.e. explosives) on an x-ray machine.

“That said,” Stanley notes, “books raise very special privacy issues.” Case law and several state statutes protect Americans’ reading habits from some scrutiny, in part by protecting public libraries or requiring search warrants to obtain book sale, lending, or rental records.

Stanley suggests that if the TSA wants to expand the policy, that it take two particular recommendations.

First, he says, the agency needs to realize that there are major privacy concerns. “That means training screeners to be aware of the privacy issues around books and papers, along with orders curbing any agents’ temptations to snoop through, draw attention to, comment on, or discriminate upon” anything they find, as well as considering protocols for private screenings if requested.

Second, Stanley suggests, the TSA should allow books and papers “to be contained by themselves within another package.” In other words, you should be able to put your file full of papers in an opaque folder inside some kind of clear plastic sleeve or even a large Ziploc bag, and run that through a bin by itself in the same way you already do with your three-ounce bottles or laptop.

The ACLU isn’t the only group that’s concerned: College faculty nationwide have worries about the searches too, Inside Higher Ed reports.

“Academics are unsurprisingly big readers, and since we don’t simply read for pleasure, we often read materials with which we disagree or which may be seen by others as offensive,” one academic expert told Inside Higher Ed. “For instance, a scholar studying terrorism and its roots may well be reading — and potentially carrying on a plane — books that others might see as endorsing terrorism. In addition, because scholarship is international, I suspect academics are more likely than others to be reading and carrying material in foreign languages, which might arouse some suspicion … Finally, academics (as well as editors and journalists) may well be carrying pre-publication materials — drafts for peer review or comment, etc. — and these could raise special concerns.”

And on top of privacy concerns, there are of course logistical challenges. Having everyone unpack their entire bag item by item, place its contents into a half-dozen bins, and then have to repack their bags after getting through the machines isn’t exactly going to speed up the screening process. More the exact opposite, really.

And the more densely packed your bag is, the more likely you are to have to unpack it, which just makes the situation even worse, since those are the bags that have the most stuff and take the longest to deal with.

The TSA is testing a new type of carry-on bag scanner in Phoenix (and soon, in Boston) that would give agents a better insight into what you’re packing without you first having to unpack it all publicly. Those could significantly speed up the security process, but they’re big and expansive so it’ll take a long time for them to roll out.

So for now, leave a lot of extra time before your flight — and maybe be prepared to explain that the copy of George R.R. Martin’s latest book, that you brought for beach reading, really is just that long.