A widespread backlash is forming against new TSA pat-down procedures that consist of blue-gloved officers potentially touching travelers' genitals if they refuse to go through new high-resolution scanning machines.

It seems that no matter what, the TSA wants your jewels -- and we're not talking about the ones you're declaring at Customs. The agency's new backscatter and millimeter-wave imaging machines at airports are controversial enough, as they clearly show the outlines of travelers' sex organs. In May, a TSA screener even got in a fight with co-workers after a new imaging machine revealed he had a small penis.

But the new pat-down procedures, which began last week, are generating discussion by journalists, pitlots, and travel experts as fliers begin to encounter TSA agents physically probing where the sun doesn't shine.

Advanced Imaging: Truth and Fiction

There's good news and bad news about the new X-ray machines, although it's mostly bad news. The good news is that pictures circulating around the Internet on sites like that seem to show backscatter images turning into clear, nude photos after "color inversion" are fakes, at least according to the TSA.

The bad news is that yes, backscatter and millimeter-wave imaging devices are "dick-measuring machines," as Jeffrey Goldberg writes in the Atlantic. Official images released by the TSA clearly show the angle of a theoretical traveler's privates.

The TSA says that these images are not viewed by staff at the checkpoints; rather, they're viewed "remotely" in a separate room to prevent staffers from connecting images with clothed individuals, unless they find a weapon. TSA officers aren't allowed to have cameras in the viewing room. Still, it's understandable why many people consider this pretty invasive. And as the intra-TSA squabble in May shows, word does get out about things seen in the supposedly-secure viewing room.

Further confusing the situation, a TSA spokesman told FareCompare CEO Rick Seaney that the images seen at airports are "dumbed down" to remove physical details. If that's true, it goes against the TSA's own public web postings.

Backscatter and millimeter-wave machines aren't being used at all U.S. airports yet. If you're worried or curious, the frequent fliers' bulletin board FlyerTalk has a full list of airports using the new technology.

Perils of the Pat-Down

According to Goldberg, the new pat-downs include TSA officers feeling up the front of your legs until they reach "resistance," which in his case meant his testicles.

Similar accounts have been shared by CNN, NPR and the Washington Post. On the Post's site, a 66-year-old woman recounts how a female screener "jammed both hands, hard, up into my crotch several times" while CNN employee Rosemary Fitzpatrick said the screener "ran her hands around her breasts, over her stomach, buttocks and her inner thighs, and briefly touched her crotch."

I asked the TSA, and they refused to comment on specific accounts. In fact, their answer was totally unhelpful. Obsessed with keeping terrorists off guard, the TSA refuses to give travelers a clear idea of what they will experience under the blue-gloved hands.

"TSA is in the process of implementing new pat-down procedures at checkpoints nationwide as one of our many layers of security to keep the traveling public safe. Pat-downs are one important tool to help TSA detect hidden and dangerous items such as explosives. Passengers should continue to expect an unpredictable mix of security layers that include explosives trace detection, advanced imaging technology, canine teams, among others," the agency said in a statement.

This means in part that the rules won't be reliable or consistent; the TSA can be expected to constantly change them, or to implement different rules in different places.

What's the Point, Anyway?

Goldberg and others don't just oppose these machines and procedures on privacy grounds. They say these machines are "security theater" moves that inconvenience travelers in highly visible ways but don't add a proportionate amount to passenger safety.

"We're going to make sure this person has nothing on them that can be used to hijack or blow up the plane, but the obvious problem is that there are cavities in the body in which you could hide things," Goldberg said. "This is that perfect combination of an invasion of privacy plus uselessness."

Goldberg, for one, advocates the "Israeli model" of intensely personally profiling every traveler to look for suspicious behaviors. That isn't practicable in the U.S. because of the size of our air-travel network (Israel has only one hub airport) and political concerns around ethnic profiling. But there are still huge holes in the security system that the TSA doesn't seem to be bothering to look at, Goldberg says.

"For instance, they're checking your government-issued ID not against a no-fly list, but against your boarding pass. You can just make up a boarding pass at home, go to a gate, and maybe even get on a plane," he says (and also demonstrated for a 2008 article). The clot of people in tight security lines are also a security threat; terrorists in Europe have attacked the security lines themselves.

Taking naked pictures of every traveler could certainly prevent them from carrying knives in their underpants. But, as Goldberg points out, Israel's El Al can serve meals with metal knives on their planes because they're confident in their multi-layer, behavior-based security. It really depends on what sort of security regime you want.

I've discussed this issue with TSA officials several times over the past eight years, and their response is always the same: "You don't know about all of our secret security procedures." While that may be true, it's also not particularly reassuring.

So What Can You Do?

Protests are rising against the new security measures. Goldberg reports that pilots for American Airlines are fighting the new measures,, although only for pilots, not for the average traveling public. He suggests that everybody request pat-downs, no matter how invasive.

"I say, if this is the federal policy, let them work for it," Goldberg joked.

Our own consumer advocate Christopher Elliott has been trying to raise protests against the new policies for months.

Goldberg noted that you shouldn't rage against the individual TSA employees here. It's safe to say they aren't having a ball, and most of the individual screeners mentioned in the various press reports seem grouchy or embarrassed about their new duties.

If vast numbers of people start requesting pat-downs, the system might break -- or at the very least, airport security delays would grow so great that the airlines could step in and demand that some action be taken.

For now, though, it looks like if you want to fly, you're going to have to let the TSA at your goods.

"This is why we need trains," Goldberg sighed.

How do you intend to handle the TSA's latest assaults on your dignity? Tell us in the comments below.