In under two seconds, the L3 ProVision Advanced People Screening device can scan a human body for metallic and non-metallic weapons, standard and homemade explosives, liquids, gels, plastics, powders, metals, ceramics, and other objects that could lead to violence or death on an airplane. It is this machine's job to keep safe the roughly 800 million travelers who pass through its gray walls each year in airports throughout the United States. It uses a software called Automated Target Recognition, or ATR, which helps the machine distinguish between safe human flesh and dangerous threats that may be concealed under a traveler's clothing.
You may recall with relief that in 2013 these hexagonal machines replaced the X-ray or "nude" systems which had come under serious legal and media fire for being invasive and ineffective, and which sparked a national conversation about traveling citizens' right to privacy. Unlike the X-ray machines, which funneled images to a second Transportation Security Administration agent in a private room, who would then scour the pictures for signs of concealed "threats," L3's ATR software does the detection work automatically, using a computer program to create only a generic outline of a body for each passenger, resembling a gingerbread cookie, and identifying any "threats" on the passenger, thus eliminating the need for the second TSA officer and preserving passenger privacy.
Yet what many of us do not know—and what critics of the previous machines could not have foreseen—is that this new generation of systems would both fail to solve the efficacy problems that plagued its predecessor and birth a new, major problem all its own. The L3 software requires a TSA agent to select the "type" of body being scanned, and there are only two options: male or female. Every time a passenger steps into the machine, a TSA agent must press either a pink button that activates an algorithm designed to analyze female bodies for potential safety threats, or a blue button for male bodies.
If an agent isn't sure, it's official TSA policy for the agent to make a quick judgment based on the traveler's gender presentation, and press a button accordingly.
Alternatively, trans passengers can opt out and receive a pat-down from an officer "of the same gender as you present yourself," per TSA guidelines. But as Alex Marzano-Lesnevich, assistant professor of English at Bowdoin College, wrote recently in a viral editorial for the New York Times, this whole arrangement creates a serious issue for transgender, genderqueer, and intersex travelers.
"I identify as non-binary—which means that in order to request a pat-down from the options the TSA gives, male or female, I would have to misgender myself, and participate in the very erasure of trans and intersex individuals the TSA perpetuates and enforces," Marzano-Lesnevich writes to Pacific Standard by email. "Yet if I don't request a pat-down, I am nearly always flagged as presenting an 'alarm' by the machine, because my clothing and underwear choices do not match what it expects for whatever the agent has selected as my gender. It's a mess, basically, and a needless, dehumanizing one that happens solely because I don't conform to binary ideas of gender presentation."
Trans and gender non-conforming people are routinely singled out for additional pat-down screenings because of the gendered programming of the L3 ProVision body scanning machines; as many as 43 percent of trans passengers say they've had negative experiences with airport security, according to a 2015 report by the National Center for Transgender Equality. The problems are various. A TSA agent may press the button that corresponds to the sex a passenger was assigned at birth, but the passenger's gender presentation may mean using a chest binder, packer, or breast shaper, which the machine then marks as inconsistent with the expected algorithm for the passenger's sex, thus triggering an "alarm." Alternatively, the agent may press the button corresponding to the passenger's presenting gender rather than the sex they were assigned at birth, which poses its own problems: A "passing" trans woman's penis, for example, will register to the machine as suspicious.
If they're unsure which button to press, it is also official protocol for TSA agents to ask the passenger what they "are" or what pronouns they use—questions that many find offensive or invasive, and which, for genderqueer or intersex passengers, may not produce an actionable answer. A manual pat-down is also not without significant drawbacks: The NCTE report further revealed that trans people have been required to undergo pat-down searches by officers of the opposite gender, reveal or remove items such as chest binders and packers, and defend challenges to their gender identities, among other problems. "An invasive crotch pat-down that goes beneath the waistband of clothing turns flying into a triggering experience that sacrifices trans people's bodily autonomy and safety," Marzano-Lesnevich says.
Those who support a "safety over identity politics" approach to airport security maintain that the disservice done to the transgender community by this "male or female" button is a means justified by the end goal of everyone's safety. But these body scanners are not functioning well at all—for anybody. Government-sponsored testing has revealed that the L3 ProVision system, and, more specifically, its ATR software, is not keeping us safe. In August of 2015, Congress sent independent testers to evaluate the scanners' performance, and in 96 percent of cases, the machines failed to identify safety threats, including metals that a simple metal detector would have caught.
According to Politico, "TSA officials failed to stop undercover agents carrying fake explosives or banned weapons through airport security during 67 out of 70 trials." On the same day the report from these undercover trials emerged, TSA's acting administrator Melvin Carraway was reassigned, and Mark Hatfield assumed control of the agency. In September of 2017, the tests were repeated. The numbers improved, slightly: The rate of failure was down to around 70 percent.
"What most people don't realize," as former TSA agent Jason Harrington wrote for Time and on his whistle-blower blog Taking Sense Away, "is that the TSA ... swapped out one poorly functioning line of machines for another."
It's not the physical machine that holds the key to solving the problems with the current system that employs the "male or female button." It's the software: ATR.
"I've struggled with the problem of ATR for literally 25 years, and have widely stated that I didn't expect to see a solution in my lifetime," says Steven Smith, a former police officer who is now president of the San Diego company Tek 84, which develops and creates security and surveillance technology. "The failures of Rapiscan and L3 are just what I would have expected."
In the early 1990s, Smith invented the very first full-body scanning system and sold it to Rapiscan Systems. Then, on Christmas Day of 2009, the "underwear bomber" attempted to detonate an explosive device sewed into his underwear, and by the summer of 2010, in response to officials and civilians alike calling for greater airport security, the old metal detectors and magnetometers of yore were replaced by X-ray "nude" systems in nearly every airport in America.
When Congress voted to require operating software that protected passengers' privacy, and that all backscatter machines be removed by June of 2013, the TSA turned to its current supplier, Rapiscan, to come up with a modification to its system, Rapiscan couldn't deliver. But the government agency found what they were looking for in the L3 ProVision system.
Rapiscan was eventually accused of fraud, Smith says, because its ATR software worked so poorly—indeed, as was widely reported, Rapiscan has been accused of manipulating tests designed to assess the privacy settings of its software, and its $67 million contract with the TSA was revoked. But, Smith says, the fundamental functioning of the current L3 ProVision technology should concern us too.
"The second company, L3, with their ProVision body scanner, has slightly better success in ATR, and the TSA ran with it."
On the use of a male/female button, Smith says it's a relatively recent addition to the software, and that such a tool might improve the detection ability and reduce the false alarm rate of the software by "telling the computer what kind of anatomy to expect."
Again, though, Smith emphasizes, "the existing ATR software is so ineffective that it's hard to know if the button has any advantages."
In 2015, Smith's company Tek 84 had spent the previous three years developing a new technology that would eliminate the need for the male/female button.
"It essentially performs at the same level as humans inspecting the scanned images," Smith says; "it won't need the operator to indicate if the passenger is male or female, it will just be able to automatically handle both cases." Smith can't explain precisely how, since the exact workings are classified. "What I can say is that the differences between male and female anatomy do not interfere with [this technology's] ability to detect threats."
Smith says he sent the software to the TSA testing lab in 2015, but that the TSA decided not to move forward with it.
The TSA maintains that the L3 ProVision is the best technology for the job available on the market, and that the buttons are an integral part of the technology's optimal functioning.
Smith disagrees. "Given that TSA can't detect threats to any significant degree, their statements that they need to use male/female identification for good detection [are] pretty far-fetched."
Meanwhile, the TSA acknowledges the existence of non-binary and gender fluid passengers and has made some updates to agency protocol accordingly. If the person under scrutiny says they are non-binary, the officer is supposed to select one of the buttons essentially at random. If there is an "alarm," additional pat-down screening is conducted. If not, the person moves on.
According to Seena Foster, of the TSA's Office of Civil Rights & Liberties, Ombudsman and Traveler Engagement (CRL/OTE), the TSA also rolled out a mandatory transgender awareness training in February of 2019, which has reached an estimated 41,000 officers nationwide and will reach the rest in the coming months. The training consists of a 30-minute online training course and covers such topics as discretion and asking for consent before touching a traveler; officers take it on computers during their breaks from screening passengers.
The TSA claims to be aware of the issues with binary ATR and says it's actively working toward adopting a system that would move the screening process away from the dreaded buttons; Burke says that any future technology the TSA adopts will be required to have a single start button to initiate the scan. As of June of 2019, the agency was still in an early phase of testing systems from multiple vendors that would do away with the buttons, a process that is expected to conclude around the end of 2020. But Burke did not offer a timeline for when travelers can expect to see gender button-free technology rolled out in airports.
The stakes of developing a security software successfully are clear, Smith says—"better privacy, faster examination time, lower manpower cost, consistency, and so on." But, he says, it may be that no system can truly accomplish what American citizens and safety proponents want it to. "The technical challenges for ATR are enormous; it is very difficult to write software that comes anywhere near the capabilities of human observers."
Many airports outside the U.S. still do not use full-body scanners, or do not use them as widely as we do in America. Dubai International Airport, for example, a central hub for travel in the Middle East and Africa, rejected the use of full-body-scanning technology over concerns that the systems aren't consistent with the tenets of Islam. In Finland, passengers go through a full body scan only if they have triggered an alarm on a simple metal detector. In Canada, passengers selected for a secondary search can choose between a full-body scan or a pat-down. In this reporter's recent experience, Dublin airport in Ireland randomly selects about 10 percent of travelers to go through full-body scanners, while the rest simply use metal detectors. These and other nations have made different decisions about what they value above all. For some, privacy is a fundamentally more sacred value than whatever additional safety such systems might offer.