Wednesday, June 03, 2009

TSA to scan bodies


Following upon my own brush with the Transportation Safety Administration's security theatrics at airports, I naturally follow developments in this arena closely. In 2007, I described a European innovation: full body image scanning of passengers. Basically, they've now got the technological capacity to peek under your clothes looking for weapons.

Today I received an alert from the National Center for Transgender Equality pointing out that while such a procedure that might seem a minor embarrassment to many of us, for some transgendered folks it could lead to harassment or worse.

The scanners reveal a lot: breasts, genitals, buttocks, prosthetics, binding materials, and any objects on the person’s body. The TSA says they will only be viewed by one employee in a closed windowless room and not saved anywhere. Faces are to be blurred out. Sounds fairly secure -- except that the TSA viewer will be in voice contact with the security screeners and likely to tell them to subject anyone who looks different to extra screening. And that is where this could get dicey for transfolks.

The primary concern NCTE has with Whole Body Imaging is the potential for transgender people to be outed to TSA personnel. Although TSA claims that privacy is provided by blurring an individual’s face and sequestering those who view the images from passengers, the agents reviewing the images are still required to communicate via two-way radio with the agents interacting with the passengers. ...TSA agents have the ability to zoom in on images to view areas or objects with greater detail. If a transgender person’s body looks different from what the TSA agent considers "normal," the passenger may be subjected to further searches and/or humiliation under the auspices of security measures.

Even if TSA creates protocols around the treatment of transgender people and provides that they are not to be singled out for further screening solely on the basis of genitalia or gender nonconformity, the person may still be outed to the TSA personnel through two-way radio communication.

Outing transgender people at airports can have profound impacts on employment and physical safety. In larger cities, this may seem relatively harmless because, even if the agent finds out that the person in front of them is transgender, they are unlikely to ever see this passenger again. In smaller cities, passengers often interact with the agents they encounter at the airport in other places in society, such as the grocery store or movie theater.

That makes good sense to me. Rep. Jason Chaffetz has proposed an amendment to the TSA Authorization Act to allow anyone who chooses to submit to a pat down search rather than the see-through scanners. I can imagine the circumstances in which I'd make that choice out of solidarity with people who don't want to risk the more invasive procedure.

The era of Security Theater just keeps throwing off new wrinkles ...

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