How Airport Biometrics Impact Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming People

This article is from 2012, but contains information that will be new to most. Alissa Bohling reports for on how the use of biometrics technology by airport security impacts transgender and gender non-conforming travelers, locating the nexus of race, religion, gender, and sexuality in the War on Terror:

“Since when did travelers’ gender become the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) business? Since at least September of 2003, when the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued an advisory warning against “Al-Qaeda’s continued efforts to plan multiple attacks against the US and US interests overseas.” The advisory included a list of potential terrorism targets, a mention of recent arrests of unnamed terror suspects and this warning: “Male bombers may dress as females in order to discourage scrutiny.”

Maybe there was verifiable intelligence about male terrorists who like to slip women’s wear over their explosive devices. Or maybe the wardens of the security state read one too many spy novels. But either way, bringing gender into the security arena has major consequences.



Since the DHS advisory, at least two other factors have brought gender further into the national security equation. One is Secure Flight, the program begun in 2009 requiring passengers to disclose their birth date and gender to airlines to be compared with their government-issued photo ID, purportedly in order to reduce the number of false matches to names on the federal watch list.

The other is the widespread use of body scanners.

Because gender has become one of the first markers in the technology-centric race for body-based data – known as “biometrics” in surveillance-speak – transgender and gender non-conforming people have been some of the first and most directly affected.

In an investigation begun during our “Surveillance in the Homeland” series on civil liberties in post-9/11 America, Truthout uncovered how their experiences illustrate what’s at stake when the human body becomes a data point in the war on terror.”

Read the article in full.


Gene Editing, Designer Babies, and “The New Eugenics”

Last month, a group of Chinese scientists published a research paper in the journal Protein and Cell that rocked the science and bioethics community. The research reported on experiments involving DNA editing of a human embryo – a first for the international scientific community.

The research, conducted on non-viable embryos, attempted to replace certain genes that cause an often fatal blood disorder. Nick Stockton of explained:

“The technique Huang and his co-investigators used, CRISPR/Cas9, allows researchers to snip out and insert specific segments of genetic code. Discovered in 2012, the technique is the subject of a lot of excitement and trepidation in the cell sciences (and its investors are already being suggested as candidates for a Nobel Prize). Relative to other gene editing techniques, CRISPR/Cas9 is easy to use, and it seems to work in just about every living organism. That means it could, among other possibilities, hold the key to personalized medical therapies, new drugs, and (as the Chinese scientists attempted) human genetic modification.”

Beyond technical concerns about the unknown short and long-term consequences of gene editing in humans, the news has raised profound questions about the ethics of gene editing, with many blocs of scientists calling for a moratorium on human embryonic DNA editing. Wired quoted George Q. Daley, stem cell biologist, who wrote:

“There are two issues: One is trying to understand at a deeper scientific level whether such an approach can be made safely. The second would be the broader and deeper ethical considerations of editing our heredity. I feel very significant concerns about using a new technology to do something as bold as changing someone’s germ line – not just for that individual, but for all of the offspring [emphasis added].”

While there has been much debate about the ethics of “designer babies,”* primarily accomplished through the artificial sorting and selection of sperm, actual DNA manipulation raises similar, if more pronounced, questions about scientists’ ability to “play god,” and how the use of such technologies in practice may reinforce hierarchies of power based on access, class, race, disability, and nationality.


*See the documentary Designer Babies: The New Eugenics (2010) which examines both the ethical implications and practical application of “designing babies.”   


FBI forensic evidence unit botched decades of testimony

A recent admission from the Justice Department and FBI have called into question the misuse of forensic evidence in criminal courts. The Washington Post broke the story this past month:

“The Justice Department and FBI have formally acknowledged that nearly every examiner in an elite FBI forensic unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a two-decade period before 2000.

Of 28 examiners with the FBI Laboratory’s microscopic hair comparison unit, 26 overstated forensic matches in ways that favored prosecutors in more than 95 percent of the 268 trials reviewed so far, according to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and the Innocence Project, which are assisting the government with the country’s largest post-conviction review of questioned forensic evidence.”

Hair sample

The misrepresentation of hair recognition technology under oath include 32 cases in which defendants were sentenced to death.

An incredulous Dahlia Lithwick writes for Slate: “The massive review raises questions about the veracity of not just expert hair testimony, but also the bite-mark and other forensic testimony offered as objective, scientific evidence to jurors who, not unreasonably, believed that scientists in white coats knew what they were talking about.”

The case once again highlights pervasive assumptions that science and scientists are necessarily objective, operating outside of social/cultural biases or political pressures. The interplay of scientific practice, politics, and power is often times much more complicated, as eugenics history demonstrates. While refraining from simplistic “science bashing,” these historical and contemporary revelations urge the general public to better interrogate the motivations behind the presentation of scientific “fact.”

The FBI revelation also calls to mind the very different use of hair as an identifying characteristic during the American eugenics movement – in attempts to characterize biologically distinct racial groups through analysis of hair structure.