Think Twice About The Books You Fly With


By U.S. Federal Government (Transportation Security Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

(Updated below)

You know the drill. Take off your shoes, your belt, empty your pockets, pull out your 3-1-1 bag, your laptop (unless you have TSA-Precheck status). Hope you remembered everything and that you don’t need to be swabbed or patted down.

According to an ACLU article, you may soon need to unpack your books and other papers and allow them to be examined as well. Apparently the TSA is already testing this and may roll it out at an airport near you.

Of course, you knew the TSA already has the right to inspect anything you are carrying onto the plane, didn’t you? Yes, even your books and papers.

Now, from what I can understand, they can only do this to ensure the safety of your flight and its passengers. Technically, what your books are about is not at issue–or is it? In 2010, a man was detained for five hours because he was carrying Arabic flashcards and had reading materials critical of U.S. foreign policy. You might think twice about material critical of the U.S., or material about other illegal activities (even if you have no intent to engage in them, for example, materials about sexual abuse).

Beyond this, it is probably wise to ask oneself, “would I want a total stranger, and one in law enforcement, to know I am reading this?” In some cases, you might just find this embarrassing, particularly if it is material of a sexual nature. Yes, you might want to leave that copy of Fifty Shades at home. But you might also take a hard look at the title and cover graphics of any books you are thinking of packing and ask how someone trained to be suspicious might look at your book, or periodicals you are carrying.

You might want to travel lighter. I sometimes carry several different books that I am reading. That could mean more to screen or even seem suspicious. Who really reads that much on a trip? (I do.) E-readers or reading apps on phones are a possibility. Currently they do not have to be unpacked (other than not being carried on your person through screening), but that could change. There is no legitimate reason a TSA officer should need to look at what books you have on it. (With e-readers, the danger is not at the airport, but in what electronic records are kept, and shared about your books and your notations by e-book vendors.)

I share this not to tell you what you should or should not read on a flight. I happen to think stronger protections of our first and fourth amendment rights in this time of fear are in order. It is also important to understand one’s rights at a TSA checkpoint, explained well in this article. But most of the time, that’s not a matter we want to pursue at a security checkpoint. Rather, we just want to get through without a fuss, and with the least invasion of our privacy. We want to get through so we have the time to stop at Starbucks before our flight.

So, reading friends, you might think about what you take along to read the next time you travel. Big Brother may want to look at your books.


The TSA has announced that they have no current plans to ask passengers to remove books from carry-ons, having completed test procedures at two airports. This friendly, even chatty, blog post from the folks at TSA provides the low down on all this, and why it was considered.

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