TSA Is Using Artificial Intelligence to Reduce Unnecessary PatDowns
Air Travel

TSA Is Using Artificial Intelligence to Reduce Unnecessary Pat-Downs

The AI algorithm for body scanners was designed to ease the process for transgender and nonbinary travelers.

Airport security is stressful enough, with travelers scrambling to remove their liquids, laptops, and shoes and then hustling through the checkpoint’s body scanner. But add in an unnecessary pat-down, and the whole experience can feel downright invasive.

Fortunately for fliers, the number of passenger pat-downs is shrinking, according to the TSA, thanks to new artificial intelligence-based technology the organization has been rolling out for the past several months. The improvement comes in the form of an updated algorithm used on TSA’s body scanners that’s designed to substantially decrease the amount of false alarms that lead to erroneous pat-downs.

The new algorithm was designed to ease the body scanner process for transgender, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming travelers, who in the past have often had issues with the machines. That’s because previously, the scanners—called Advanced Imaging Technology, in industry jargon—have relied heavily on a gender binary to determine the machine’s results and whether passengers could 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.

“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,” TSA spokesperson R. Carter Langston said in an emailed statement. The new algorithm has also proven to decrease the number of pat-downs for all fliers, according to Langston, making the security process generally more efficient and less invasive.

Congress allotted $18.6 million to the TSA to complete the development, testing, and implementation of the new algorithm. The improved body scanners are part of a larger undertaking by the agency to make its screening protocols more gender-neutral. Other measures include removing gender information from the identity validation process—which happens when traveler’s show an officer their passport or driver’s license—and adding an ‘X’ gender option on the application for TSA PreCheck.

According to advocacy groups, while the new algorithm is a step in the right direction there’s still more work to be done. “Transgender travelers deserve a screening process that allows them to make it from the front of the airport to their gate without having to answer invasive questions about their bodies or experience unwanted touching from a government official. These screening algorithms are an important step toward achieving that goal,” Olivia Hunt, policy director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said in an emailed statement. “We applaud the Biden-Harris Administration’s efforts, and encourage them to continue their work to create a culture of respect and accountability among the TSA officers who interact with transgender travelers, as well as travelers with disabilities and members of religious and ethnic minority groups.”

The new algorithm began rolling out to scanners in mid-December, and that process will continue throughout the summer of 2023.

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