Is the TSA Targeting Attractive Women?

A Dallas woman believes she was violated by TSA officers who, she says, repeatedly asked her to enter a body scanner because of her looks

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A CBS News affiliate interviewed Dallas resident Ellen Terrell about her claims that she was targeted for full-body screening at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport because of her looks. Terrell says she was asked three times to have her body scanned, allowing TSA officials in a separate room to review the images displayed. It’s against TSA policy to ask a passenger to go through body scanners multiple times. Terrell also says the agent who was posted by the scanner commented on her “cute” figure. The TSA has denied profiling passengers on the basis of looks or for any other reason.

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The report doesn’t specify when the incident occurred, saying only that it happened “several months ago,” and Terrell never filed an official complaint because she says she didn’t know she could. But after leaving the airport, Terrell says, it dawned on her that she had been targeted for scanning because of her appearance, even though the TSA agents in the reviewing rooms cannot see the passengers who are going through security. Terrell says she is just one of many women who have been treated inappropriately by TSA officers using their authority to ogle women in backrooms. The CBS News reporter covering the story went through TSA documents and found other incidents in which women complained that they were targeted for being “semi-attractive” and feared they were the object of “peep shows.”

While the complaints should be taken seriously — in light of incidents at TSA checkpoints that seemed quite inappropriate — the timing and specific circumstances of Terrell’s encounter should also be scrutinized. The TSA announced in July 2011 that it would begin rolling out new software called Automated Target Recognition (ATR) on millimeter-wave machines, which make up about half of the body scanners used in the U.S. The ATR technology displays less-revealing images that are basically generic body outlines; an image appears only if an abnormal object is detected. Otherwise, the officer, who does not need to be in another room if the ATR technology is being used, sees only a green screen and the word O.K. DFW airport installed the ATR technology on its machines in September 2011, but since the CBS News report didn’t specify when Terrell’s incident occurred, it’s unclear whether it was before or after the change. And in case you were wondering, backscatter machines, the other kind of body scanners used in the U.S., display a more passenger-specific image that looks like a chalk etching and has to be viewed in a separate room. DFW airport uses only millimeter-wave machines.

Terrell’s story doesn’t necessarily scream sexual harassment, but it highlights people’s distrust of the TSA and their feeling that their privacy is being infringed upon by officers, who in some cases might be using their authority to take advantage of passengers.

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