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Tuesday, September 26, 2023

GAO: TSA Should Assess Potential for Discrimination in Passenger Screening

DHS said TSA plans to conduct a study over the coming year to explore ways to collect additional passenger information on alarms during checkpoint security screening.

A new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) addresses allegations that some of TSA’s screening practices may negatively affect certain passengers.

According to TSA officials in all four* of the airports that GAO visited and representatives from the seven stakeholder organizations GAO interviewed, TSA’s advanced imaging technology (AIT) or other practices could result in certain passengers being referred for additional screening more frequently than others. These include transgender passengers or travelers with with coarse hair, religious headwear, and mobility prostheses. For example, TSA officers push a blue or pink button on the AIT machine to specify the gender passengers are scanned as, based on their visual assessment of the passengers’ gender presentation. The officers noted that transgender passengers may trigger alarms depending on the nature of their transition, because the AIT may register potential threats in the groin and chest areas. 

It should be noted that in March this year, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced new measures to advance equality for transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming travelers. These include updating the current, gender-based AIT system with new technology. Specifically, officers will only be required to press a gender-neutral “scan” button which, according to TSA, is expected to facilitate screening of transgender passengers because officers will no longer need to discern a passenger’s gender prior to AIT screening. TSA officials told GAO that the update will increase detection rates and reduce false alarm rates for the traveling public. The new technology is expected to be deployed in the first quarter of fiscal 2023. Until then, TSA is permitting less invasive screening procedures for certain passengers who trigger the AIT scanner in a sensitive area. In addition, TSA is updating identity documentation, including PreCheck program application, to include the X gender marker.

GAO conducted its performance audit from May 2021 through November 2022. As well as visiting the airports and interviewing TSA officials, GAO also sought information from the American Civil Liberties Union, Autistic Self Advocacy Network, Council on American-Islamic Relations, National Center for Transgender Equality, National Disability Rights Network, Paralyzed Veterans of America, and Sikh Coalition, to help determine TSA’s potential for discrimination.

In 2019, the House Committee on Homeland Security heard from a representative from the Sikh Coalition who stated that Sikhs are virtually guaranteed to receive additional screening because of their turbans, which trigger AIT alarms. According to the representative, this perpetuates stereotypes that certain passengers, including Sikhs, Muslims, Arabs, and Hindus, are threats because other passengers consistently see them trigger alarms on purportedly neutral technology. Moreover, a representative from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legal Defense and Educational Fund stated in the same hearing that Black women wearing natural or braided hair have frequently had to undergo pat-downs of their hair by TSA officers because the AIT technology is unable to distinguish contraband from natural Black hair. 

GAO’s review found that TSA has taken actions, such as establishing procedures and training, that can help to prevent the potential for discrimination in its airline passenger screening practices. However, the watchdog is concerned that TSA has not assessed the extent to which these practices may result in certain passengers being referred for additional screening more often than others. 

GAO’s review also considered the passenger complaint process in terms of discrimination. TSA has a process for addressing passenger complaints alleging discrimination, but GAO wants it to improve how it informs passengers about this process. Representatives from the seven stakeholder organizations told GAO that passengers are often unaware of how to file discrimination complaints. TSA provides signs for airports to place at checkpoints that include contact information for questions about screening, but most do not explicitly cite complaints, which could help ensure any issues are identified and addressed. The same was noticed regarding social media posts.

According to GAO, TSA’s data systems and collection practices limit its ability to fully analyze discrimination complaints. The watchdog said TSA is unable to analyze the number of complaints that were found to have merit or resulted in disciplinary actions because the data are stored in different systems that lack specific fields to collect this information. Improving TSA’s analyses of discrimination complaint data could better inform training and other initiatives to help prevent discrimination. TSA officials told GAO that more detailed and comprehensive tracking would be helpful in identifying and addressing any trends in complaints related to potential discrimination. 

To further improve its commitment to minimize discrimination, GAO has made four recommendations to TSA:

  • Collect additional data on passenger referrals for additional screening. 
  • Conduct assessments to determine the extent to which TSA’s passenger screening practices comply with agency non-discrimination policies to identify any needed actions to improve compliance. 
  • Take additional actions to better inform passengers about TSA’s discrimination complaint process. 
  • Strengthen TSA’s ability to analyze passenger discrimination complaints, including improving the collection and tracking of complaints data, to help inform training, procedures, and other initiatives. 

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) concurred with each recommendation. DHS said TSA plans to conduct a study over the coming year to explore ways to collect additional passenger information on alarms during checkpoint security screening. The main objectives of the study are to determine which types of data would provide useful information, the best methods for data collection, and whether those data can be cross-referenced with other data TSA already collects (e.g., passenger complaint information). As part of the study, TSA plans to use a sample of airports to determine whether the data collected can identify whether any passenger groups are disproportionately selected for additional screening.  

In addition, TSA will be broadening the language in its discrimination complaint signage posted at airports that currently addresses disability discrimination-related complaints, evaluating its public internet site to optimize its ability to share information about how passengers can file complaints, and working to provide new opportunities for customers to connect with TSA and provide customer feedback. DHS anticipates that these efforts will be completed by December 29, 2023.

Finally, TSA is assessing technological solutions to have distinct case management systems connect with each other within the applicable offices that manage complaint cases. According to DHS, this capability is intended to allow TSA to enhance its ability to perform data analysis on complaints, gain full lifecycle visibility into complaints, and expedite information sharing between headquarters and the field, along with other benefits. DHS expects these efforts to be completed by August 31, 2023.

Read the full report at GAO

*GAO visited Los Angeles International, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International, and Chicago’s O’Hare and Midway International airports.

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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