TSA’s Gratuitous Bun Squeezing

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I have a friend named Neda. She is known for many things, but her most striking physical feature is her hair. It is explosive. Thick black curls billow from her head and intertwine to form a wild thicket. Her hair has the tensile strength of woven steel. If it were long enough, it could support the weight of a prince. It is alive, almost a separate being. There is Neda. And then there is her hair. They’re like conjoined twins.

On Sunday night, Neda coaxed her hair into a bun and headed to the Los Angeles airport. She was booked on the redeye back to New York City. And everything was going smoothly until she exited the body scanner.

That’s when a TSA agent stopped her and said, “I need to check your hair.” The agent donned blue latex gloves. And then she cupped Neda’s bun. “She squeezed it a couple times,” Neda says. “And then she said, ‘You’re good.”’

This isn’t the first time Neda has had airport security grope her hair. In fact, it has happened so many times she has lost count. Maybe five times? Maybe ten? The process makes Neda uncomfortable, but she never pushes back. “You don’t do that as a Middle Easterner,” she says.

Neda’s experience floored me for a couple of reasons. First, TSA has asked to check my sad, limp mop exactly never. So I did not know this was a thing. Second, doesn’t TSA have powerful whirring machines that give its agents X-ray vision? Yet these machines can’t see through . . . thick hair? Is thick hair TSA’s kryptonite, I wondered.

Sort of. Body scanners aren’t nearly as powerful as TSA would have you believe. Most airports now use millimeter wave machines, which aim radio frequency waves at the body and turn the reflected energy into an image. In 2011, ProPublica reported that even things like sweat, buttons, and folds in clothing can prompt false alarms. In one German study, the false positive rate climbed above 50%, meaning that every other person who went through the scanner triggered a false alarm.

And new software might compound the problem. Remember when we all freaked out about TSA agents seeing us naked? Well, scanner manufacturers responded by adding privacy software. So instead of seeing an actual image of our bodies, agents now see a cartoon outline of a person with a yellow flag at the position of the anomaly. This protects privacy, but some studies suggest that it increases the false positive rate. Here’s an excerpt from that ProPublica article:

France tested the scanners with and without the privacy software on more than 8,000 passengers flying out of Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Airport to New York from February to May 2010. But the government decided not to deploy them because there were too many false alarms, said Eric Heraud, a spokesman for the French civil aviation authority. Heraud wouldn’t release specific figures but said the false alarm rate was higher with the automated detection than when officers interpreted the images.

What isn’t clear to me, however, is whether agents are checking Neda’s hair because the machines have falsely tagged it as a threat, or because the agents themselves have been taught to pat down certain types of hair.

According to a post on TSA’s blog, it could be either. In April 2016, the agency noted that agents conduct hair pat-downs if “the hair area alarms for a potential explosive” or “an individual’s hair looks like it could contain a prohibited item or is styled in a way an officer cannot visually clear it.”

Neda isn’t the only one getting frequent hair checks. Many black women have complained about the pat-downs too. Solange Knowles tweeted about it in 2012. (“My hair is not a storage drawer.”) And in 2014 the ACLU filed a complaint against the TSA on behalf of neuroscientist Malaika Singleton, who had her hair probed twice in a single trip. “The humiliating experience of countless black women who are routinely targeted for hair pat-downs because their hair is ‘different’ is not only wrong, but also a great misuse of TSA agents’ time and resources,” said Novella Coleman, an attorney with the ACLU of Northern California.

In 2015 the TSA agreed to conduct additional training of TSA agents, with a special emphasis on hair pat-downs of black female travelers. The agency also pledged to ensure that TSA policies were being consistently implemented across all airports. But the policy outlined in that TSA blog post, written a year after the ACLU agreement, still leaves a lot of wiggle room for profiling. What does it mean to have hair that “looks like it could contain a prohibited item”? What does it mean to have hair that is “styled in a way an officer cannot visually clear it”? These are judgement calls.

Neda doesn’t think race was a factor in her pat downs, however. She is often mistaken for Italian or Spanish. “I don’t think I’m being profiled,” she says. “I think my hair is being profiled.” That doesn’t make the experience any less uncomfortable or invasive.

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This image is NOT Neda. I’m withholding her last name and photo to protect her privacy. She might not want this story to come up when people search on her name.

Image courtesy of Brynn Tweeddale on Flickr.

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