Around 650,000 people in the United Kingdom do not identify as either male or female. For 20 years, non-gendered activist Christie Elan-Cane has been trying to convince the UK Passport Office that such individuals should be allowed to choose ‘X’ on their passports as an alternative to M or F. Elan-Cane further argues that requiring a non-gendered individual to select M or F constitutes a false declaration on a legal document.

For this reason the UK High Court is reviewing a claim that the refusal to issue these ‘Gender X’ passports is unlawful. The claim suggests the requirement for individuals to indicate whether they are female or male is inherently discriminatory against those who may identify as non-gendered, transgender, or be intersex.

Image: Jokestress on Wikimedia Commons

Gender is one of the globally mandated biographical markers that must be on all passports issued worldwide, along with name, date of birth and nationality. These attributes help officials more effectively determine if the individual in front of them is the genuine holder of the passport. As the international geopolitical climate has seen increases in terror attacks, border services across the world have worked to strengthen their ability to identify and intercept bad actors. When assessing individuals it is critical that officials are able to verify that you are who you say you are, but also that you don’t present a risk to national and public safety. So are gender markers critical for these efforts?

Why Gender X?

X is one of only three gender markers allowed on passports by the International Civil Aviation Organization, and denotes an ‘unspecified’ gender. The option is believed to have emerged during the large refugee migration following World War II. Emergency passports needed to be issued fast enough to keep up with the need to resettle individuals, but those issuing the passports couldn’t always ascertain the gender of names that were foreign to them.

Today, X presents the only alternative option for those who do not identify as either male or female. In August 2017, Canada made it possible for citizens to opt for X on their passports, becoming only the tenth country to offer a ‘third gender’ option. The others include Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Malta and Denmark, all of which now offer the choice of M, F or X on their passports, many in an effort to promote LGBTQIA rights. Others such as Taiwan and Germany look likely to follow suit.

Biometrics and identity

The proliferation of biometric recognition to identify individuals is disrupting several industries, most notably financial services. The ability to secure access to our mobile phones or our online banking with our fingerprints, or to control our smart homes with our voices through digital assistants, has changed the way consumers interact with fingerprint, face and even voice recognition.

At border controls, travelers that are used to visa application processes may be familiar with providing photographs and fingerprints prior to being granted permission to travel to their destination. Today, many governments and companies in the aviation, travel and tourism sector are testing ways to rely more heavily on biometric recognition for identifying individuals across their travel journeys.

Image: Assured Biometrics Inc

Research by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) suggests that facial recognition algorithms are becoming increasingly accurate, and in many cases surpass human performance in matching identities. More recently, NIST reported that face recognition experts perform better with artificial intelligence as a partner instead of another person. Using these advanced biometric technologies means we may be able to radically improve the way we identify travelers at borders - so much so, in fact, that we may very soon no longer need to rely on markers such as F or M to help in the identification process.

In a world in which we recognize that gender is not binary and in which individuals are demanding rights over their own identities, do these advances in technology provide us with the opportunity to advance gender identity equality - either by allowing for Gender X or removing gender from passports altogether?

Maybe not just yet.

Risk assessment

While each nation state determines its own mechanism for assessing risk at their borders, until now the primary data used for risk assessment has been limited to biographical information, such as your country of origin, your gender and your age.

However, the assumption that factors such as nationality are reliable predictors of risk has been eroded over the last decade. Some of the most tragic attacks we have witnessed have been homegrown threats or were committed by individuals with citizenships considered to be low-risk. Five of those suspected of involvement in the 2015 Paris attacks were French citizens. Richard Reid, the notorious ‘shoe bomber,’ who was fortunately apprehended, is a UK citizen.

Advances in predictive data analytics and machine learning present opportunities to improve risk-assessment processes. If a passenger provides information about their travel or visa history upfront, this information may be far more relevant for assessing risk than the 50/50 indicators of biological sex or gender identity. Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, believes a move to risk-based travel facilitation based on early, reliable information about who is coming to the border would help border officials intercept inadmissible people before they arrive, know what questions to ask those who may pose a risk, and more seamlessly clear those that are known to be low-risk, regardless of nationality, age or gender. The World Economic Forum’s Known Traveller concept aims to tackle this very challenge by redesigning the border crossing process for a more secure, seamless and just experience for all travellers.

With biometric technology to verify that you are who you say you are, and meaningful individualized risk assessments, we may be able to do more than move beyond labelling individuals as male or female; we can take major strides towards reducing profiling and unjust bias in the global travel security system.