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.