Wednesday, March 18, 2009

TSA wants to know your gender

Late last year, the Transportation Security Administration finalized regulations for its soon-to-be-launched "Secure Flight" program, intended to streamling the vetting of passengers and eliminate false matches with its watch list for terror suspects. Under the program, TSA rather than airlines will do the matching, but airlines will be required to obtain and pass along a new set of information from passengers, including their full name, date of birth, and gender. Privacy groups, naturally, oppose the program, which TSA has declared exempt from the federal Privacy Act (PDF). Transgender individuals are also understandably worried by any suggestion of collecting and "matching" gender information.

It's important to note that in this case the purpose is not to match the individual's declared gender against, say, their own passport or birth certificate, but instead to match it against TSA'a watch list for terror suspects. In the new federal rules for Secure Flight (PDF), TSA explains why it is asking about gender:
Many names are gender neutral. Additionally, names not derived from the Latin alphabet, when translated into English, do not generally denote gender. Providing information on gender will reduce the number of false positive watch list matches, because the information will distinguish persons who have the same or similar name. Consequently, TSA is including gender as a required element of the SFPD, which covered aircraft operators must request from individuals and which individuals must provide to the covered aircraft operator.
Thus, TSA has no reason to care about your gender as such - it wants to quickly and efficiently tell whether you might be the same "Lee Anderson" or "Alex Parker" as the one on its list. In its explanation of the program for travel agents (PDF), TSA says that "Aircraft operators will collect gender based on the declaration of the individual making the booking." Thus, according to the way the program is supposed to work, they are just comparing the passenger's declaration to the watch list.

In practice, it's not likely to be that simple. As the Human Rights Campaign noted in its opposition to the proposed regulations (PDF), it's not clear whether enhanced screening of an individual will, in practice, result if airline staff happen to notice a discrepancy with the passenger's identity documents. Airlines may feel it's simply the right thing to do, because gender discrepancies are viewed as suspicious - and the regulations give them authority to decide that. Likewise if an individual declines to make a declaration about gender. Moreover, the regulations provide for hefty fines for those making a false statement about any required data, including gender. How will it be decided if someone's declaration regarding their gender is "false"? Even if no transgender folks are ever fined, they have reason to fear the process.

While TSA's makes a logical argument that gender data would be helpful to them in streamlining the process, they haven't and can't make the case that it's necessary. If this requirement helps prevent harassment and inconvenience for some travelers by eliminating erroneous matches, it will simultaneously cause the same and potentially even worse problems for transgender travellers.

The Obama administration wasn't in on the process of writing these rules, which were finalized last October. It's not clear if these are among the regulations the administration is reviewing and may reverse, but TSA appears set to go ahead with rollout of the program.


John Galt said...

Legally, gender is proved via visual inspection of physical attributes. Thus, gender claims that don't match the results of a physical inspection are false. If that's a problem for you, consider having your ID ammended. Or, to simplify matters, try being honest.

Lee, the lilyofthewest said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Polymorphous Perversity said...

There is, in fact, considerable disagreement over the legal, medical, and philosophical definition of gender and its relationship to various physical attributes. Methinks the above commenter is speaking from his sense of "common sense," rather than from any legal or medical authority. Jurisdictions disagree over whether, which, and to what degree physical attributes define gender. Medical experts also differ (which creates some consternation when courts rely on medical experts, and the medical experts fundamentally disagree). Of course, there is no obvious reasons medical, legal and philsophical/ontological or theological answers should necessarily align.

None of which is to the point here. Whatever the facts, these matters are fundamentally private, and shouldn't be subject to unnecessary government inquiry or disclosure.

John Galt said...

TSA is not just "collecting" info on passengers; that's paranoid thinking. Honestly, if they really wanted our names, genders, and DOBs, don't you think they'd just get them without asking? The government has more info on us than most of us care to know, and every day we trust them (individual employees, really) to respect that data and use it properly.
WRT air travel, we all want security and ease of use. You have to be realistic to acheive those goals. If you don't think your gender is linked to you physical attributes, and you want whatever is beneath your clothes to remain private, that's fine. But you need to get a government-issued ID that states the gender you want to use. It doesn't matter whether you appear to be the gender you claim or the gender stated on your ID, as long as they match. After all, a lot of people color their hair or gain weight.
In the end, if the info you give when purchasing your ticket matches the info on your ID, you shouldn't even have to go up to the ticket counter. Ideally, anyway.
No one should have to be hassled for lifestyle choices. We each just have to decide the concessions we're willing to make to have things as simple as possible.
Politically speaking, I guess the libertarians are the only ones who really go all-out to keep your personal info out of government hands. Of course, they take many positions most people don't take, so they're always in the minority. But if the protection of personal info is paramount, most of us (including me) probably need to re-examine our parties' stances on that issue.
Anyway, take care.