US agrees to address airport security technology discrimination

People who are transgender, wear religious headwear or have disabilities are being referred more frequently for additional screening.
Loukia Papadopoulos
The TSA is struggling with discrimination.jpg
The TSA is struggling with discrimination.


A new report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released on Monday is raising some concerns about airport security checks.

The findings indicated that some passengers are being screened more than others in what is described as discriminatory practices.

"Stakeholder groups and Transporation Security Administration (TSA) officials said that TSA's advanced imaging technology and other practices could result in certain passengers—like people who are transgender, wear religious headwear, or have disabilities—being referred more frequently for additional screening. But TSA hasn't collected data on these referrals or assessed frequency. Also, stakeholders said that passengers are often unaware of how to file discrimination complaints," said the report.

TSA is a division of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and is in charge of overseeing the safety of the country's internal and external transportation networks.

GAO found that although the TSA has a process for addressing passenger complaints alleging discrimination, it could improve how it informs passengers about this process.

While TSA provides signs for airports to place at checkpoints that include contact information for questions about screening, most do not explicitly cite complaints. 

Additional steps required

"Taking additional steps to better inform the public about the discrimination complaint process could help ensure any issues are identified and addressed. Further, TSA's data systems and collection practices limit its ability to fully analyze discrimination complaints," further stated the report.

The GAO found that 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.

Addressing issues with technology

TSA Director David Pekoske recently told members of Congress that the organization is now trying to address these issues through technology.

"We're putting new technology in our security screening checkpoints," Pekoske said. "We have a lot of that new technology at Atlanta airport, but part of that technology is to be able to automatically detect prohibited items, which currently we don't have the ability to do."

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To conduct its report, GAO analyzed documents and data on TSA's screening practices and complaints process and interviewed TSA officials in headquarters and four airports, selected based on size, complaints filed, and other factors. GAO also interviewed seven stakeholder organizations, including those representing religious groups and persons with disabilities, selected based on their work on airline security screening.

The TSA screened over 1.5 million airline passengers per day in 2021 as part of its mission to protect the nation's transportation systems. The volume of people it evaluates makes it ever more important that it proceeds without bias. The GAO's new report can now be used as a guideline to improve processes and actions taken by the TSA on a daily basis.

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