Most of us would probably agree that getting a body pat-down at the TSA is not pleasant. People have used every word in the book to describe them, from “invasive” to “sexual assault.” And while it’s true there have been lawsuits against some TSA officers who allegedly went “over the line” (which, unfortunately, also happens in any other workspace), the vast majority of pat-downs are done appropriately, regardless of how uncomfortable they are.
To their credit, TSA has done everything to explain pat-downs screenings, from a FAQ to an entire video. And even though TSA officers use the back of the hands for pat-downs over sensitive areas of the body, it’s still uncomfortable for those getting patted down.
What’s made things worse is when a pat-down gets done because of a false alarm. Read: when it never had to be done in the first place.
According to TSA though, and happily for those flying, the number of passenger pat-downs is shrinking. Why? Technology! Thanks to $18.6 million from Congress, the TSA has been rolling out new artificial intelligence software over the past several months. The new software includes updated algorithms used on TSA’s body scanners that are designed to substantially decrease the number of false alarms that lead to unnecessary pat-downs.
The new algorithm was specifically designed to update the body scanner process for those who tended to have had the most difficulty with the machines – specifically transgender, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming travelers. Until now, the scanners (officially called Advanced Imaging Technology) used a gender binary (male/female) to decide the machine’s results, as well as whether or not passengers might be hiding contraband. If a security officer misgendered a passenger, the machine would flag them for additional screening, which often meant pat-downs in sensitive areas.
For example, a TSA officer might tell the scanner that the next person to go through the machine is a particular gender. But if the person is trans, nonbinary or gender nonconforming, the officer may input to the computer what gender they *think* the passenger is. But if they’re incorrect, what the scanner “sees” vs what it “thinks” that inputted gender should look like will be different. That could lead to a pat-down to very sensitive areas.
TSA spokesperson R. Carter Langston says, “TSA recognized a trend with false alarms at the Advanced Imaging Technology units and implemented an algorithm update on the nearly 1,000 deployed units to significantly reduce false alarms.”
Langston added the new algorithm has also helped decrease the number of pat-downs for all fliers, which, in turn, makes the security process more efficient and less invasive.
The updated body scanners are the latest update by the agency to make its screening protocols more gender-neutral. They’ve also removed gender information from the identity validation process (that happens when travelers show the officer at the security checkpoint their passport or driver’s license), and adding an ‘X’ gender option on the TSA PreCheck application.
The TSA started updating their scanners with the new algorithms in mid-December. The process is expected to continue throughout this summer.
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