Miami Beach Man's Epic Four-Year Battle Against TSA's Airport Scanners Continues Despite Court Loss
Illustration by Mark Poutenis
Opinion polls generally show the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) falling somewhere between Kim Il-sung, herpes, and getting hit in the face with a bag full of rancid fish. People cannot stand America's airport security force.
But not too many among the grumbling masses have the commitment to wage a four-year battle against the agency in court to try to reform its pat-down procedures and force it away from body scanners. Part-time Miami Beach resident Jonathan Corbett is about the only activist who fits that description. He's been battling the TSA in federal court since 2010 on two separate lawsuits.
Both recently lost at the appellate level, but the software developer says he's appealing and hopes to take his privacy concerns to the Supreme Court.
"Some people have asked why I keep fighting," Corbett says. "The truth is, these body scanners are truly the worst solution both technologically and economically that the TSA could use."
Corbett's fight began in 2010 after the TSA installed hundreds of body scanners, which cost nearly $200,00 a pop, in airports around the nation. He filed two suits. The first argued the scanners violated privacy by letting agents look at nude scans of passengers' bodies; the second objected to the genital-groping pat-down that was the only alternative.
His cause got a boost in 2012, when he filmed a video of himself sneaking a piece of metal through Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport's machine to demonstrate a flaw in the system.
The video went viral on YouTube, netting Corbett millions of views and scores of new followers for his blog, TSA Out of Our Pants!
In the years since, the TSA has changed its game. Thanks to objections like Corbett's, scanners no longer take nude pics of passengers; instead they give agents a generic body picture to check for weapons.
But Corbett argues that the machines are still inefficient and that traditional metal detectors coupled with explosive detection systems and bomb-sniffing dogs would do a better -- and less invasive -- job. "We've seen a lot of progress," he says. "But the search is still overly broad."
Corbett's suit against the scanners lost 2-1 last month at the U.S. Court of Appeals 11th Circuit, based mostly on an argument that he filed too late. But the dissenting judge strongly disagreed, which Corbett believes gives him a window to challenge. He's asking the full 11th Circuit appeals bench to rehear it.
In the meantime, Corbett continues flying regularly for work. He opts out of the scanners and -- believe it or not -- hasn't landed on a no-fly blacklist for his troubles.
"If anything, I think I'm on a do-not-mess-with list," he says. "Last time I went through customs, they didn't ask me a thing."