TSA Behavior Screening Program Leads to Racial Profiling, ACLU Says

The TSA has consistently publicly defended the effectiveness of the program, despite concerns from experts who say it lacks a grounding in science.

WASHINGTON – The Transportation Security Administration program to detect suspected terrorists based on their behavior lacks scientific validation and has led to racial profiling, the American Civil Liberties Union said in a report released Wednesday.

The ACLU report resulted from a June 2015 lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act that forced the release of more than 12,000 pages of documents about the program.

The TSA has used a process called SPOT – Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques – to select people for additional questioning as they pass through airport security since 2007. The TSA had kept the details of exactly what it looked for secret, but a checklist was leaked to the press in 2015 that called out 92 specific actions, including exaggerated yawning, whistling before a screening interview, and the wearing of impractical clothes.

In particular, the TSA documents indicate a substantial focus on Arabs, Muslims and Latinos, despite repeated TSA assurances that the Department of Homeland Security component does not profile travelers based on ethnicity, race or religion.

The 28-page ACLU report examined TSA investigations of allegations of racial and religious discrimination and uncovered details that were not previously revealed. The report also found TSA’s files were filled with academic research that questioned the validity of behavior detection while the agency maintains the program is grounded in science.

The TSA has consistently publicly defended the effectiveness of the program, despite concerns from several experts saying it lacks a grounding in science and involves racial profiling, according to the ACLU.

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The SPOT program has cost $1.5 billion since it was rolled out in 2007, according to a 2016 inspector general’s report.

In 2013, the watchdog Government Accountability Office recommended limiting funding for SPOT until the agency was able to provide “scientifically validated evidence demonstrating that behavioral indicators can be used to identify passengers who may pose a threat to aviation security.”

The ACLU is now calling on Congress to cut funding to the program and for the TSA to implement a rigorous anti-discrimination training program for its workforce.

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About the Author


Although Bosch’s name is quite familiar to those in the security industry, his previous experience has been in daily newspaper journalism. Prior to joining SECURITY SALES & INTEGRATION in 2006, he spent 15 years with the Los Angeles Times, where he performed a wide assortment of editorial responsibilities, including feature and metro department assignments as well as content producing for latimes.com. Bosch is a graduate of California State University, Fresno with a degree in Mass Communication & Journalism. In 2007, he successfully completed the National Burglar and Fire Alarm Association’s National Training School coursework to become a Certified Level I Alarm Technician.

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