By now, you have likely heard of the smartphone app (available for iPhone and Android devices) released by the Sikh Coalition called FlyRights, which was released yesterday (April 30), and is free of cost. The news of this app’s release has spread virally among news outlets and has been applauded by other civil rights organizations and the general public.
FlyRights allows travelers (Sikh or otherwise) to now report complaints to the TSA and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) if they feel that they have been racially profiled by TSA agents.
Based on past experiences, it is an app I wish I had before, but I’m glad that it’s available now.
During one occasion that I was taking a vacation out of the country, I had received extra scrutiny and searches of my carry-on luggage by TSA agents prior to boarding a flight that other passengers had not. After I had cleared the additional inspections, a fellow passenger approached me and asked:
“Does this happen to you all the time?”
My response was to tell him that no, it doesn’t always happen, but it does happen and I’ve learned to expect it. There have been other occasions when I was pulled aside by a border agent so that they could search through my travel and identity documents with a proverbial fine-toothed comb. Of course, they find nothing to object to in their investigation, and I am released to rush and catch my connection while I shake my head.
It’s also not a particularly enjoyable experience to walk through a metal detector, knowing that I will almost always be escorted to an area enclosed in glass (I’ve seen this characterized as a “glass cage”) where a TSA agent arrives to give me an extra patdown in full view of other passengers. I also know that these agents are at liberty to take me to a private room and order that I remove my turban for additional searches. On my last bout of air travel, as I was being patted down by a TSA agent as part of his additional screening of me, I looked to my left and right, and in the security lanes on either side of me were other South Asians who were being similarly treated.
I know that the severity of my experiences have been relatively minor compared to what many others have reported in terms of racial profiling or treatment by TSA agents. Nonetheless, the potential for my rights to be violated at the mercy of the TSA is always in the back of my mind when I travel.
It’s interesting, because if you read the TSA blog, you find countless instances where the TSA has confiscated firearms (sometimes, loaded) and other dangerous weapons from people who attemped (intentionally or not) to bring them aboard an aircraft. I would be interested to know how many of these people were South Asian, or Sikhs, or wore turbans. My hunch is that, overwhelmingly, the people carrying these weapons are not from among those identities. However, the TSA is not particularly transparent, and despite that they have not likely found any instances Sikhs attempting to bring such weapons aboard an aircraft, the TSA insists on inspecting our turbans in search of residue from explosives.
Moreover, I acknowledge that the agents working for the DHS (including the TSA) are usually very polite, even when one US Immigration agent at an airport suggested that I change my name to avoid problems when traveling in the future. Such courtesy acts only as an anesthetic when our rights are violated.
For the record, the TSA publicly disowns the use of racial profiling techniques in official statements. However, as Amardeep Singh of the Sikh Coalition stated:
“The TSA to their credit will always say, ‘We don’t profile. Profiling is wrong, and it’s counterproductive.’ The problem is that, in our estimation, the TSA has way too long a leash on their screeners. So they’re getting to have their cake and eat it, too. They can say don’t profile, but they take no effective measures to prevent it.”
This is a very profound statement. Even when we know that racial profiling is not effective, many continue to espouse the use of racial profiling as a tool to combat terrorism. One only needs to look at the statements made by recent US Presidential-hopeful Rick Santorum on national television or, in another instance, during a campaign stop:
Describing his own profile – “a 53-year-old, Italian-American, who grew up in a steel town, who used to be a United States senator” – Santorum went on to say he’d be happy to be searched if he fit the profile of a terrorist.
If someone seeking the office of President of the United States can openly endorse racial profiling, how can we be sure that agents and officials within the TSA do not share the same view, especially when we are not assured that safeguards and audits are in place to prevent agents from searching people simply based on religion or appearance?
Complaints about the TSA and the use of racial profiling by Sikhs and the general population are commonplace, but these are often not submitted as official complaints to the TSA. It may be that once the episode is over, a passenger who believes she/he has been profiled chooses to just move on and not get involved in additional paperwork or disruption, or they are reluctant to engage with the organization they feel has violated their rights.
I believe that the FlyRights app is a precedent-setting and marvelous leverage of technology to allow passengers to easily submit an official complaint to the TSA/DHS and to the Sikh Coalition on their smartphone, and almost at the point of contact. It is important to note that the Sikh Coalition – as a third party – also receives a record of the complaint (should this option be selected by the complainant). It is also reported that the TSA has authorized the use of FlyRights to submit a complaint, so it comes with that agency’s endorsement as well.
Developed by iconify, it should also be mentioned that FlyRights reportedly took its genesis when community members came up with the concept of a smartphone-based system. The application’s development and release is an example of what can be achieved not only when we engage with our civil rights organizations (rather than lament that they are not doing enough), but also when we bring our talents, abilities and time in support of our community.
Regarding the application itself, I have installed FlyRights on my Android phone, and it seems to run very well. There are about 20 straightforward questions to be filled out in the report, most of which are selectable options. FlyRights also provides links to official lists of traveler’s rights for the general population and for Sikhs, keeping these as a handy reference for travelers.
I’ll take some facetious liberty in saying that I can’t wait until the next time that I suspect that I have been racially profiled when I’m traveling, so I can get to use the FlyRights app on my phone to record my experience. When we can collect data, we can develop actionable steps to reduce the experiences that Sikhs and others have gone through in which their civil rights have potentially been undermined. In my opinion, the development of this app is a major step in empowering people to protect their civil liberties.