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 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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An update on TSA

August 3, 2010

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.

TSA in the news….

May 28, 2009

MSNBC has an article about the Transportation Security Agency’s (TSA) new program called Secure Flight. The article can be found here.

This new program requires all airline passengers to submit their full legal name, date of birth, and (of all things) gender to TSA before they are issued a boarding pass. TSA will then take this information and check it against their federal No-Fly list to make sure that you, the passenger, aren’t a terrorist.

It is just a passing mention, but the author of this MSNBC article writes “(I wonder what transgender travelers will be asked to do.)” This particularly piqued my interest because this issue is exactly the issue that I have been working on for the last week. What does TSA expect transgender travelers to do? If the passenger has an old gender marker on their documentation, are they going to be stopped? If a passenger has different gender markers on various forms of identification, will they face trouble at security checkpoints?

I’ve been talking to some TSA officials about this for the last week or so. Apparently the answer is no; transgender travelers should face no new travel barriers as a result of Secure Flight. Security protocols do not change, and it seems that neither TSA nor airline personnel are even expected to verify that the date of birth and gender you submit when booking flights is consistent with what your identification says. Why, then, do they make us provide this information?

I’m not convinced that this process will move forward without flaws, and I’m not convinced that gender is even necessary to maintaining security on our flights. I’m going to keep working on this and update you when I have better answers. I just thought this was an interesting mention of an issue that we’re working on, so I wanted to share with you all. Keep your eye out on our website for resources on how TSA’s new flight security procedures affect transgender people and how to avoid delays at the airport.


Whole Body Imaging at Airports

May 18, 2009

Today, NCTE signed on to a letter, with other organizations concerned with privacy, to the Department of Homeland Security calling for the suspension of a policy that would utilize Whole Body Imaging as the primary screening technique at airports. Additional time is needed to evaluate privacy and security concerns.

The technology allows TSA personnel to view what is under a person’s clothing; in other words, a naked body. This raises major questions about privacy, of course. NCTE is concerned about sensitivity to transgender bodies which appear on the screen as well as the fact that this policy could essentially require travelers to reveal their unclothed bodies to government employees in order to board an airplane.

The machines are currently in use in 19 airports and the primary screening method in 6 of those.

You can read about whole body imaging on the TSA website.

CNN also has a lead story about this today, with a poll (about having way down on the right side) asking, “Would you be willing to be subjected to “whole-body imaging,” which critics say performs ‘a virtual strip search’?”