An update on TSA

Over the last several months, NCTE has been working with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to address concerns about privacy and harassment of transgender travelers in airport security screening. This has included creating and updating informational resources for the community about TSA’s Secure Flight program and airport body scanners, and bringing TSA officials to speak with community members at our Policy Conference this spring. It has also included educating TSA about the trans community, and making recommendations for nondiscrimination policies and training.

Recently we had the opportunity, along with other privacy advocates, to see a demonstration of TSA’s body scanner machines. The demonstration did not allay our basic concerns about the current use of this technology, but it did clarify some things. We learned that TSA’s backscatter machines (one of the two types used) are set to use an automatic image filter to mute the resolution of the body scan – but that even the filtered image could be enough to out someone as trans. We learned that, in response to privacy concerns, the software capacity of the scanners to store and transfer images of travelers is now completely removed from the machines when they are installed in airports. And we learned that officers viewing the scans are trained only to report the presence of an anomalous object on a body scan to officers at the security checkpoint; figuring out what the object is is supposed to be left entirely to officers at the checkpoint. We are encouraged that TSA is looking seriously at automated threat detection systems that are less privacy-invasive, but also concerned that the agency’s massive investment in the current machines will make a swift transition to alternative methods of primary screening unlikely.

A measure in Congress to limit use of the scanners, though it passed the House last year, died in the Senate. Senators Klobuchar and Bennett recently introduced a bill that, instead of banning primary use of body scanners, would make it mandatory nationwide. The prospects for the Klobuchar-Bennett bill are uncertain. Meanwhile, TSA continues to use Recovery Act funds to place scanners in airports around the country, and to step up its PR offensive in support of the scanners.

In April, NCTE joined the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), the ACLU, Public Citizen and many other organizations in petitioning the Department of Homeland Security to suspend the deployment of body scanners for primary screening. DHS refused, and EPIC is now seeking a court order to limit use of the scanners, asserting violations of privacy and religious exercise, as well as failure to follow proper regulatory procedures in deploying the scanners. That lawsuit is now pending in court, and may be for some time.

NCTE continues to receive occasional reports of inappropriate or harassment treatment of transgender travelers at security checkpoints, and to communicate about these issues with TSA. To date, NCTE has not received any reports of problems for transgender people associated with TSA’s Secure Flight program, which collects travelers’ name, date of birth and gender at the time of booking to check against government watch lists.

NCTE will keep working to ensure that transgender Americans have no reason to be afraid of flying.


5 Responses to An update on TSA

  1. Sabrina says:

    When flying last month I was made to pass through one of the new scanners. I am pre-op and wear breast prostheses. I stood as they told me to, and there was a slight hesitation but I was cleared to proceed with apparently no problem. No one who was standing nearby would have gotten any hint of my trans status from the way it was handled. I still don’t like the invasiveness of this new system, but at least for me on that day it went smoothly.

  2. wimpie says:

    This is a strip-search, period. It makes no difference that the technology allows it to be done on an industrial scale, it’s a violation of privacy that ultimately has, at best, no effect on safety. At worst, it exposes frequent fliers to elevated doses of x-ray radiation which may cause more deaths by cancer than the terrorists could ever kill with an airplane.

    Body-cavities are not revealed, thus making this simply an exercise in power-mongering voyeurism.

    You HAVE THE RIGHT to opt-out of these intrusive searches, and maybe be wanded/patted by a same-sex guard. I did this a few months ago, which gave me the opportunity to officially express my displeasure – the guard wrote down the reason for my opting-out for their official records (it’s a strip-search, I said). I suggest more people do this.

    Plus – do you want your kids showing up to Beavis & Butthead in the back room looking like this:

  3. LeighAnne says:

    We have a long way to go to recapture all of the rights that have been stripped away since 9/11.

    I remain convinced that the screening process, with the possible exception of “sniffing” for explosives, is a big public relations stunt.

    Anyone with a working knowledge of high explosives knows why the last two airliner “bombing” attempts were doomed to failure. Fortunately, we have some very ignorant, if zealous, terrorists.

    Keep up the fight!

  4. Recent story that can have impacts on those who wear breast forms:
    Cancer surviving flight attendant forced to remove prosthetic breast during pat-down

    Now, this brings up an interesting question. Can breast forms being worn by transgender women be considered a “prosthetic” device in the eyes of the TSA and the law?

    I am not that much concerned about the radiation of the body scanners as I do not travel frequently anymore and I would likely go ahead and do it.

    The TSA website makes it clear that agents will never ask for prosthetic devices to ever be removed. I wonder if this will also apply to transwomen.

    I hope the TG media and organizations focus on this case as this has impacts on us who wear breast forms and who travel.

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