The other side of privacy

Privacy rights protect certain marginalized groups from discrimination

Many people in the media and in government have been advocating full-body scanners in the wake of the failed Christmas Day attack by so-called Underwear Bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. In recent weeks Canada has quickly moved towards introducing the scanners, along with the U.S., U.K., Nigerian, and Dutch governments.

My reaction when I heard about the proposed scanners was that I simply wouldn’t fly anymore. Part of being transsexual, at least for me, is an immense sense of discomfort with my body, which makes me avoid situations where I might have to expose myself. For example, at present I avoid going to the gym because I don’t want to change clothing there. (Of course there are other issues involved in such situations: e.g., sex-segregated facilities.)
However, this action also cuts to a deeper issue – the risk of discrimination or harassment. Before body scanners, I felt comfortable travelling knowing that I could still present myself as male, which would at least allow my general appearance to match with my identity documents. In that way I could avoid the problems that trans people face when travelling by clothing myself in cis (meaning “non-trans”) privilege. But the body scanners would prevent me from doing that: they would display the physical results of my hormone replacement therapy, including breast development and the reshaping of my waist and hips, despite the clothing on my body.

The machines, then, would instantly out me to whoever is operating them. This can be dangerous, since I have no idea how the scanner operator will react to trans people. Though the risk that a screener would be overtly hostile may not be very high, the results of such attitudes, including verbal and physical harassment, are terrifying. This problem is an even more serious concern because once someone else knows I’m trans, that person could tell anyone else they want – which increases the chances that someone I wouldn’t want to know would find out without my consent.

Furthermore, since policies tend to assume that those operating the scanners will be of the same sex as the person scanned, a male scanner might have some questions if he saw my increasingly female body contour on the screen. I can’t help but think that my body could delay the security process or lead to selection for additional screening.

All of this makes me feel unsafe at airports – which is ironic, since the goal of the policy is to increase safety. (Or, more cynically, to make voters feel safer regardless of how much protection the scanners would actually provide).

I’ve since realized that I will probably have to fly at some point – which makes the lack of mainstream media coverage of how full-body scanners will affect trans people all the more frustrating. Instead, the mainstream narrative has tended to frame the issue of full-body scanners as a debate between privacy and security.

An implicit assumption in the discourse around the scanners seems to be that the people going through them will be members of dominant groups (a term that refers to those who are cis, white, male etc.). This idea obscures the role of privacy in protecting people who aren’t in socially privileged positions, such as trans people and people with stigmatized medical conditions (for example, urinary catheters may show up on the scanners). Privacy rights allow members of marginalized groups to hide their marginalized qualities if they so choose. This allows them to receive treatment closer to that received by members of dominant groups and, hopefully, to avoid harassment.

This aspect of privacy hasn’t really been a part of public conversations on the scanners. Instead, the assumption is that privacy would protect people’s modesty, and, indeed, this is a legitimate concern, particularly for certain religious minorities that place value on modesty. However, without an awareness of how privacy protects members of some marginalized groups, our notion of privacy will necessarily be incomplete. This more limited sense of privacy is then much easier for security advocates to debate.

The framing of the issue as involving privacy and security also sweeps other concerns under the carpet – including those of equality. On the surface, this seems to be equal – after all, if everyone has to go through the same process, how could it not be? However, when this process interacts with social attitudes towards trans people, it produces disproportionate effects on us. Cis people don’t have to worry about the same issues. That isn’t substantive equality.

There are plenty of other situations in which we recognize that treating everyone in the same way wouldn’t really be equal. For example, the LSAT usually takes place on a Saturday. However, out of a recognition that some people would have to choose between observing the Sabbath and taking the LSAT (which practically all common law schools in Canada require), there are other dates for Saturday Sabbath observers. Now, clearly, this example is on a different scale; the LSAT doesn’t involve security of hundreds or thousands of people in the way counter-terrorism does. However, it illustrates nonetheless that these sorts of equality issues do exist – and that we can devise remedies.

Such problems remind us that what we need is an equality that recognizes that people are different – and that putting everyone through the same process can sometimes lead to unequal results because of those differences.

Most importantly, however, before anyone rushes into introducing scanners, we need to have a fuller discussion of how this policy will affect everyone – including those who we often forget.