LGBT Groups Denounce TSA Rule Codifying Body Scanners

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March 3, 2016
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The National Center for Transgender Equality, Lambda Legal and the American Civil Liberties Union's LGBT & HIV Project today denounce the Transportation Security Administration (TSA)’s decision to codify its use of full body scanners in a final rule. Ordered to review the program by a federal appeals court five years ago, TSA said yesterday that it will make no changes in airport security and denied there is any impact on travelers’ privacy.

The move comes months after the TSA’s head was ousted following an audit in which scanners and pat-downs failed to catch weapons or mock explosives in 95 percent of “secret shopper” tests. In recent months, TSA has admitted that the scanners routinely trigger alarms based solely on transgender people’s body parts, leading to widely-publicized incidents where travelers were forced to discuss their genitalia with TSA officers.

LGBT organizations have heard from hundreds of transgender travelers in the US who were asked to lift or remove clothing to reveal undergarments or prosthetics, required to undergo multiple pat-downs and questions about their bodies, and even prevented from boarding flights because of a “groin alarm.”

NCTE Executive Director Mara Keisling said:

It is completely unacceptable to require Americans to discuss their genitals with uniformed government officials in order to travel by air. But that’s exactly what the body scanner program means for many transgender people. TSA has ignored the public’s very real concerns about the efficacy and the real harms of this technology. TSA is spending billions on security theater that seems to do little but erode all travelers’ privacy and dignity.

Introduced in 2008, a federal appeals court declared the TSA’s use of the machines unlawful in 2011 because the agency acted without formal rules or public comment on a matter affecting tens of millions of people. The court allowed the program to continue in part because TSA promised travelers could always opt for a thorough pat-down instead—a position the agency reversed in December. Despite numerous court petitions by organizations including NCTE, and comments from thousands of air travelers, TSA took five more years to adopt this court-ordered rule, which makes no changes in the current program.

NCTE Policy Director Harper Jean Tobin said:

We urge President Obama and Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson to take action to finally restore balance to airport security. Today’s system exacts a high cost in dollars and personal privacy, with no proof that it is working. These scanners can’t even tell the difference between a bomb and a traveler’s own body. The American people deserve better.

LGBT and privacy organizations have consistently urged TSA to reconsider its approach to security, limiting use of body scanners and pat-downs and making more use of metal detectors and explosive trace detection. Advocates also urged TSA to codify its current promises regarding passenger rights into the rule, which the agency also refused to do. Still, TSA declined to make any changes in the current program.