Reconsidering airport scanners

By , November 17, 2012 5:13 am

Images taken by the (older) x-ray backscatter scanners

I don’t like the TSA. I think they engage in security theater (at best) along with racism, sexism, and theft (at worst). I’ve also repeatedly refused to use the TSA scanners, opting instead for the “enhanced security pat down.” I had a few reasons for doing so: I question the safety of repeated exposures to the scanners, I don’t like supporting security theater and feel a sense of obligation to slow down the process, and (most importantly) I question how they would read trans people. After some consideration, and a lot more traveling this past year, I’m beginning to reconsider.

First, it’s worth discussing the two types of scanners used by the TSA. The older models, and the ones around which I based most of my opinions, used a (relatively) high level of radiation for their scans, displayed the naked images which made the news, and have been prohibited in the European Union. The newer models, which I’ve been seeing as I’ve traveled the last few months, use a (relatively) low level of radiation for their scans, display generic human outlines as opposed to naked pictures, and are used the world wide.

So, after flying from O’Hare to Harrisburg for a gig at Bucknell University (which went swimmingly) I decided that, for my return trip, I’d give the scanners a try should I have the option. I am beyond security, having gone through the scanners, and have no excitement to report; I went through without incident and was not flagged for additional screening.

New AIT screen

New scanner screen, as seen by the TSA agents

I’m still torn on whether or not I’ll go through them in the future, or continue to opt for the pat down. The scanning is (obviously) much quicker than the pat down, and the geek of me was kind of impressed: the new scanners are much better designed than the old, with open glass frames and no feeling of claustrophobia or discomfort. The use of generic body outlines, as opposed to the ‘naked’ images of the old scanners, also relieves many of my worries about ending up on a scanner porn site. (It’s worth noting that the first image – which happens to be the most porno-rific – also appears to be faked.)

On the other hand, I don’t like that the attendant picks (based on their perception alone) ‘male’ scanning mode or ‘female’ scanning mode. You can see, in the picture to the left, the pink and blue selection buttons on the upper-left of the screen. I understand that this may make programming the scanner software easier, but that’s kind of not my problem; I don’t want to support the TSA in their ‘clocking’ of trans people, even if they happen to be clocking me as a “real” woman.

More broadly, I still don’t like the TSA’s role in a nation devolving toward non-stop security theater. I don’t like the $8 billion a year spent on the TSA, with problematic and questionable results. I was born during the last days of the Soviet Union, and one of the (supposed) defining distinctions between “us” and “them” was our ability to travel freely, without fear of restrictions. While the TSA is not responsible for things like Stop and Frisk, I do think the TSA is doing very real work to push the US toward a “papers, please” society, where a right to free and unhindered travel is no longer assumed.

That’s the question, isn’t it? Balancing my personal convenience, which would indicate I should go through the scanners, with my political and ideological beliefs, which would indicate I should continue with the pat downs. As of right now, I’m leaning toward the pat downs: I have never had a problem with them or been subjected to a rude or disrespectful TSA agent, I arrive at the airport with enough time for them (although they really only take an extra few minutes), and it’ll make me feel better about my travel plans. (Not to mention the sense sanctimonious rightousness I get in telling other people about my ideological stand at the airport.)

For all that, I am glad I went through the scanners. Before, they were an abstract experience. Now, I’m forced to admit that going through one was ultimately pretty anticlimactic. (Although, one experience is not exactly a systematic study of the system as a whole.) I feel better informed about my decisions, and more equipped to speak intelligently about the potential (and actual) issues trans travelers may face.

Obligatory Footnote: My privileges as a white, perceived-as-female, educated, middle-class (by upbringing if not by income) traveler do – in some ways – provide some balance to the potential and actual issues I face as a trans traveler. I dont’ want to pretend that I think my experience is perfectly representative of every trans traveler out there, but I still think it’s worth drawing from.

3 Responses to “Reconsidering airport scanners”

  1. r. says:

    “The newer models, which I’ve been seeing as I’ve traveled the last few months, use a (relatively) low level of radiation for their scans, display generic human outlines as opposed to naked pictures, and are used the world wide.”

    Um. You may want to reconsider that bit in light of recent news:

  2. joe says:

    i’ve had multiple experiences where their clicking the “wrong button” gender-wise has ended up with a male security officer with his hands on my chest, trying to figure out why i have something strapped on to me. it’s called a bra, jackass. although i am worried about the day when the other “wrong [but slightly better] button” gets clicked, and i end up getting a crotch pat-down. :(

    • Rebecca says:

      Absolutely. As I said in the post, I sympathize with the difficulties of programming a ‘one code fits all bodies’ solution, but I don’t really care; it’s their responsibility to make sure their inclusive, not my responsibility to bend over backwards.

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