Say cheese

April 28, 2009

Backscatter X-Ray ImageA little over two years ago, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) began trialling body scanners at airports in Phoenix, New York and Los Angeles to screen passengers for weapons, explosives, metal, plastic and liquids. They were immediately controversial for the way in which they ‘see’ through clothing – as evidenced by the image (click to embiggen). The software was modified by introducing a so-called privacy algorithm and faces were also blurred, but the resulting images still left nothing to the imagination.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) have fought against the use of these machines from the start – the ACLU objected to body scans because they were administered selectively (link here):

The ACLU is concerned that these searches have been conducted without good cause and based on profiles that are racially discriminatory. In addition, these machines are capable of projecting an image of a passenger’s naked body. We oppose using this as part of a routine screening procedure. Passengers expect privacy underneath their clothing and should not be required to display highly personal details of their bodies such as evidence of mastectomies, colostomy appliances, penile implants, catheter tubes and the size of their breasts or genitals as a pre-requisite to boarding a plane.

Millimeter Wave ImageLast year, the TSA announced it was increasing the number of airports provided with body scanners – click here to see the full list and a map of the locations. Two types of machines are currently in use: the backscatter X-ray type, and the newer millimeter-wave scanner.

None of this information is new, of course, but as William Saletan points out in his recent article at Slate (link here), a more wide-ranging change is now under way. In February, the TSA announced it would begin testing millimeter-wave scans “in the place of the walk-through metal detector at six airports” (San Francisco, Miami, Albuquerque, Tulsa, Salt Lake City and Las Vegas).

At these airports, everyone – not just people selected for secondary screening – would face the see-through machines. Anyone who objected would “undergo metal detector screening and a pat-down.” You might even get the “enhanced pat-down,” which includes “sensitive areas of the body that are often used by professional testers and terrorists,” such as “the breast and groin areas of females and the groin area of males.”

Robin Kane, the TSA’s acting chief technology officer, is quoted by Joe Sharkey in the New York Times (link here) as saying:

“The plan now is that all passengers will go through the whole-body imager instead of the walk-through metal detector”, he said.

“We’re just finishing some piloting in six airports in the primary screening position,” he said. Assuming tests continue to be positive, the machines will eventually be used at most domestic airports.

This is a complete reversal of the TSA’s original position, when it stated that body scanners would be a “voluntary alternative” to “a more invasive physical pat-down during secondary screening“. (Via)

When we consider the possible impact on trans people, it’s clear that there may be some very serious implications for those whose find themselves in the ‘no-match’ quandary, particularly in the light of the TSA’s previous statement that:

[…] terrorists actively look for ways to manipulate security protocols. Intelligence has also shown for decades, terrorists’ manipulation of societal norms to evade detection or use social engineering techniques to their advantage. Terrorists have successfully hidden explosives in these areas.


In other words, your passport may say you’re female, and you may be presenting as such, but if the body scanner shows you to be male-bodied, there’s a good chance you’ll be pulled in for further investigation by the authorities. At least, this could be embarrassing and humiliating, exposing us to more discrimination and harassment – like we don’t get enough of that anyway. At worst, being outed for not conforming to a strictly enforced gender binary could place us in real danger – especially if the authorities decide you’re a suspected terrorist travelling incognito.

Isn’t it way past time discrepancies like these were resolved so trans people can travel freely regardless of how we self-identify, or what our gender presentation may be? Unfortunately, as always, the power to change this policy is in the hands of cis people. It’s hard not to think that, had there been any sort of consultation with trans people in the first place, this situation would never have arisen.


Other, related posts about body scanners:

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