Despite Some Progress in Airport Security, Bigger Changes Needed

October 23, 2014

In September 2014, National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) was one of three stakeholder organizations to receive a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) “Community Partner” award. NCTE Director of Policy Harper Jean Tobin accepted the award on behalf of NCTE for our education and training of TSA personnel on transgender rights and concerns, and to press for less invasive approaches to airport security.

While TSA will not share details of their “standard operating procedures,” it is clear that NCTE’s advocacy has resulted in some refinements over the years. These changes, along with the move away from officers viewing individual body scans to an automated system where officers view only a generic “Gumby” outline , mean we hear fewer stories of bad TSA experiences each month than in the past. As TSA has rolled out its Passenger Support Specialist (PSS) program, NCTE has directly worked with TSA to present transgender online trainings to several hundred PSS officers.

NCTE Director of Policy Harper Jean Tobin accepts the Transportation Security Administraton's "Community Partner" award.

NCTE Director of Policy Harper Jean Tobin accepts the Transportation Security Administration’s “Community Partner” award.

Unfortunately, less than one week after receiving the award from Administrator Pistole, NCTE heard from our longtime supporter and trans advocate Gunner Scott about a bad TSA experience at JFK airport. Contrary to the procedures TSA established with NCTE’s input, Scott was asked to take off his shirt by TSA personnel after a body scanner read his binder (in this case, an item identical to a sports bra) as an “anomaly.” Like many trans men, Scott runs into binder “anomalies” frequently and this was the second time in two years he’d been asked to remove his shirt.

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Traveling While Trans: An Airport Security Update

November 25, 2013

As of May 16, 2013, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has equipped all airport scanners with Automated Target Recognition (ATR) software. This software still scans the contours of your body under your clothes, but it doesn’t display images of your body. Instead, it automatically detects objects under your clothes and displays them as yellow blocks on a generic figure. From a privacy perspective, this is definitely an improvement, but ATR can still flag items such as binders or prosthetics as “anomalies,” and this can still lead to invasive questions and pat-downs.

TSA also continues to expand its TSA Pre-Check program—a voluntary, fee-based, pre-screening initiative that passengers can apply to participate in prior to their arrival at airport checkpoints. Participants will be able to use designated Pre-Check lanes and could be permitted to choose not to remove their shoes, toiletries, laptops, light outwear and belts as they move through security. While enrollment in the program does not guarantee that an individual will be exempt from more invasive screening measures, it may decrease the likelihood of experiencing a pat-down. TSA launched Pre-Check last year for participants in certain airlines’ elite frequent-flyer programs, and for those already enrolled in trust traveler programs through U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), such as Global Entry. Starting sometime this fall, travelers will also be able to apply to enroll directly in TSA Pre-Check by paying a fee (expected to be $85), submitting a detailed application, and providing fingerprints at a designated enrollment site. Again, this will not cure privacy issues with airport screening, but for trans folks who travels frequently this is an option worth considering.

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Naked Body Scanners Being Moved Out of Major Airports

January 18, 2013

Concerns Remain Over Pat-Downs and Training

Airport Security

Photo: Adam Fagan

Today, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced that they were moving one type of invasive body scanning machines out of major airports and placing them in smaller airports. The machine, which use backscatter technology, reveal the outline of a traveler’s body to airport security officers for screening. Over the last several years, the National Center for Transgender Equality has expressed concerns with the TSA about how the these machines may lead to “outing” and unnecessary pat-downs of transgender travelers.

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New Resource: Preparing for Airport Security

November 21, 2012

While most transgender and gender non-conforming people get through airport security without any incidents, the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) urges travelers to understand their rights before going through airport security with our new resource Airport Security and Transgender People.

The seasonal Holiday travel uptick can mean things are more hectic and potentially confusing for travelers and for Transportation Security Officers (TSOs) than usual. Airport security practices do not allow transgender travelers to completely avoid invasive screenings or pat-downs. However, all travelers have a right to safety, privacy, and respect.

Transgender travelers should be familiar with specific protections they have at airport security including:

  1. You can opt out of body scanning machines at any time. However, travelers who opt-out of body scanning machines will be required to undergo a thorough pat-down.
  2. Transgender travelers have a right to a pat-down by an agent of the same gender as the traveler. This is based on your gender presentation. The gender on your identification documents and boarding passes should not matter for pat-downs.
  3. Travelers have a right to request that a pat-down be held in a private screening area, and with a witness or companion of the traveler’s choosing.
  4. You should not any time be subjected to personal questions about your gender, or be forced to lift, remove or raise an article of clothing to reveal a prosthetic item. Prosthetic items include binding garments and breast forms.
  5. All children under age thirteen have a right to modified screening procedures.

NCTE recommends that individuals take simple steps to ensure a smooth experience at airport security including:

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New App for Reporting Discrimination to TSA: FlyRights

May 1, 2012

The Sikh Coalition launched a free mobile phone app that makes it easier to file complaints with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The new app – called FlyRights – allows anyone to file complaints in just a couple of minutes, as soon as they leave airport security. FlyRights makes the process very user-friendly by automatically populating things like your name, contact information and the airport you are in, and will automatically submit your complaint to the TSA and the Department of Homeland Security. You can also choose to have the complaint shared with the Sikh Coalition, which is working to track all kinds of TSA civil rights complaints. While developed in response to the difficulties Sikhs often face at the airports, FlyRights allows anyone with an iPhone or Android phone to file a complaint of discrimination based on gender, race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, or disability.

NCTE commends the Sikh Coalition for developing this app and we encourage transgender travelers, and anyone who experiences disrespect or mistreatment because they are perceived as gender non-conforming, to use this app to file complaints with TSA/DHS. If you file a complaint, be sure to indicate that it concerns gender discrimination. And share this app with family and friends so everyone knows it’s available.

TSA recently put up a webpage with information for transgender travelers, and has begun to incorporate respect for transgender people into employee training – but there is still a ways to go, and some problems will continue as long as TSA relies on invasive screening procedures. NCTE plans to put out a new resource on airport security in the coming weeks.

New Airport Security Technique Worries Trans Advocates

August 17, 2011

There are more changes coming from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).  This week they launched a pilot program that involves conducting mandatory short interviews, dubbed “chat-downs,” with every traveler coming through Boston’s Logan Airport. Agents look for signs of nervousness or concealment, and any other suspicious behavior. “We are looking for behaviors that are out of the norm,” the TSA’s local security director told National Public Radio.

But NCTE is concerned that mandatory “chat-downs” will disparately affect transgender people, resulting in harassment and unwarranted selection for invasive screening.  Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, says:

“The TSA continues to do a good job of making transgender people uncomfortable at airports. The TSA already employs interview-style interventions at airports across the country, and the TSA’s intent to explore and possibly expand this program is worrisome. ”

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Quick Hit: Local Group Responds to Philadelphia’s ID Policy

July 25, 2011

The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transport Administration (SEPTA), which runs public transit services for four Pennsylvania counties, requires that all mass transit passes must include a sticker indicating the pass-holder’s gender. This policy is discriminatory and puts transgender people at risk for harassment and possible violence. It was put in place by SEPTA to prevent “pass sharing,” a type of fraud in which multiple people use one pass to save money. However, this system often outs transgender people and puts them in uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous situations.

In response to the policy, transgender community members formed RAGE: Riders Against Gender Exclusion in 2009, and urged anyone who was harassed due to their gender marker to report the incident. Since then, reports of discrimination and harassment have been numerous. One woman reported that during her regular commute the conductor would frequently ask “Is that really your pass? You don’t look female enough.” Other passengers would also harass her. RAGE has had several meetings with SEPTA, but officials have not made any changes to the gender-marker system. Currently, RAGE is planning a campaign for SEPTA riders to pledge to support the cause and to protect the safety of their fellow riders. Max Ray, a member of RAGE, spoke to Campus Progress: “What we really want to do is make space for everyone who doesn’t fit those male and female stickers to stand up and say, hey, we’re here, and we deserve fair treatment, just like everybody else.”

Read the full story here.

Traveling While Trans: Questions Remain With TSA’s New Software

July 25, 2011

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) released information on new software upgrades for their full-body scanners that could impact transgender people. Scanners will no longer explicitly show images of the person being scanned. Instead, a basic human figure will be shown highlighting areas of the body that may pose security risks. These software changes are being made over the coming months to scanners that use millimeter wave technology, currently a minority of the approximately 500 machines in the field. The TSA has not yet fully tested the software for the majority of machines that use backscatter technology, though it hopes to later this year.

Full-body scanners have provoked outcry from the transgender people because of how they “out” transgender people going through airport security, making travel dangerous. These software changes appear likely to reduce the risk of unwanted invasion of privacy; however, aspects of the new software are troubling. In particular, it’s not clear that the software updates will change the fact that transgender people are disproportionately selected for invasive pat-downs.

In this photo from the Los Angeles Times, the pink and blue buttons appear to be used to commence scanning for travelers. It appears that TSA officers need to select a pink or blue “scan” button based on their perception of a traveler’s gender. The new software may identify “anomalies” based on gender-atypical anatomy, rather than only targeting foreign objects. This may be a security trigger which would lead to an invasive pat-down, potentially embarrassing questions and in some cases, biased harassment. NCTE urges the TSA to provide greater clarity for the public on how the new scans work.

NCTE Executive Director Mara Keisling said:

“In conversations with the TSA, NCTE has asked for clarification on how these new systems will actually work.  We appreciate TSA’s efforts to improve its methods, but it’s not yet clear how much this will address the problems transgender people face at airports.”

The software changes also don’t address the concerns of other groups. It may help or hinder travel for people who carry medically necessary devices or for people of certain faith traditions. For example, questions remain about how the new software detects medical devices like urine pouches, or religious wear like the kirpan, an ornamental weapon, required to be worn by orthodox Sikhs.

Rollout of the new scanner software came shortly after a federal appeals court ruled that the TSA unlawfully implemented the full-body scanners because they did not allow a public comment period on the systems.  NCTE Policy Counsel Harper Jean Tobin said:

“While the court ruling does not end the use of body scanners, we applaud the court’s recognition that the TSA gave insufficient regard to the public’s privacy concerns. The TSA should recognize that they unlawfully adopted these screening methods and should improve their transparency by providing the public with full notice and comment on current and future airport security procedures.”

Mark Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) which initially filed the suit, commented on the decision: “Many Americans object to the airport body scanner program. Now they will have an opportunity to express their views to the TSA and the agency must take their views into account as a matter of law.”

Read more about the new scanner software here.

Read more about the court ruling here.