Washington, D.C. - Fidgeting, whistling, sweaty palms, arrogance, rigid posture, gazing down, exaggerated yawning; if you display these signs in an airport the TSA says you might just be a terrorist.
According to confidential documents obtained by the The Intercept, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is operating a controversial program intended to identify potential terrorists.
TSA officers have been instructed to attempt to identify and rate airport travelers based on behavior patterns that it believes are indicative of deception or stress. Critics claim that the program singles out individuals with emotions common to many people who may be flying.
The controversial program, known as Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques, or SPOT, trains officers to become Behavior Detection Officers (BDO) used to observe and interact with passengers as they go through screenings.
The “Spot Referral Report,” which is the document that lists the criteria is not classified, but it has been intentionally kept secret by the TSA and has never before been publicly seen. A copy of the document was given to The Intercept by a whistleblower concerned about the program's lack of quality.
Critics of the program point out that many of the indicators, such as “trembling” or “arriving late for flight,” are rather mundane behaviors and are not uncommon for airline passengers, especially those unfamiliar with air travel.
“Behavior detection, which is just one element of the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) efforts to mitigate threats against the traveling public, is vital to TSA’s layered approach to deter, detect and disrupt individuals who pose a threat to aviation,” a spokesperson told The Intercept in an emailed statement.
The SPOT program, which began in 2007, has been the subject of intense scrutiny due to the lack of scientific evidence to support the program. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found in a 2013 report that there existed virtually no evidence to support the notion that “behavioral indicators … can be used to identify persons who may pose a risk to aviation security.” The GAO concluded, after analysis of hundreds of scientific studies, that “the human ability to accurately identify deceptive behavior based on behavioral indicators is the same as or slightly better than chance.”
According to The Intercept:
The inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security found in 2013 that TSA had failed to evaluate SPOT, and “cannot ensure that passengers at United States airports are screened objectively, show that the program is cost-effective, or reasonably justify the program’s expansion.”
Despite those concerns, TSA has trained and deployed thousands of Behavior Detection Officers, and the program has cost more than $900 million since it began in 2007, according to the GAO.
The 92-point checklist listed in the “Spot Referral Report” is divided into various categories with a point score for each. Those categories include a preliminary “observation and behavior analysis,” and then those passengers pulled over for additional inspection are scored based on two more categories: whether they have “unusual items,” like almanacs and “numerous prepaid calling cards or cell phones,” and a final category for “signs of deception,” which include “covers mouth with hand when speaking” and “fast eye blink rate.
Points can also be deducted from someone’s score based on observations about the traveler that make him or her less likely, in TSA’s eyes, to be a terrorist. For example, “apparent” married couples, if both people are over 55, have two points deducted off their score. Women over the age of 55 have one pointed deducted; for men, the point deduction doesn’t come until they reach 65.
This past week, the ACLU filed suit against the TSA in an effort to force it to release records related to its behavior detection programs, alleging that they lead to racial profiling. The current lawsuit stems from a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by the ACLU last November. Numerous documents related to the program were requested under FOIA, including the scientific justification for the program. Also requested wer the changes to the list of behavior indicators, materials used to train officers and screen passengers, and how the information collected on travelers is utilized.
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“The TSA has insisted on keeping documents about SPOT secret, but the agency can’t hide the fact that there’s no evidence the program works,” said Hugh Handeyside, staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project, in a statement.
The TSA call their methods a "common sense" approach.
“No single behavior alone will cause a traveler to be referred to additional screening or will result in a call to a law enforcement officer (LEO),” the agency said in its emailed statement. “Officers are trained and audited to ensure referrals for additional screening are based only on observable behaviors and not race or ethnicity.”
According to The Intercept, one former Behavior Detection Officer manager, who asked not to be identified, said that SPOT indicators are used by law enforcement to justify pulling aside anyone officers find suspicious, rather than acting as an actual checklist for specific indicators.
“The SPOT sheet was designed in such a way that virtually every passenger will exhibit multiple ‘behaviors’ that can be assigned a SPOT sheet value,” the former manager said.
The source went on to say that the alleged signs of fear and deception listed “are ridiculous,” adding, “These are just ‘catch all’ behaviors to justify BDO interaction with a passenger. A license to harass.”
The observations of a TSA screener or a Behavior Detection Officer, who is completely untrained and unqualified to be assessing behavioral patterns, should never be the cause of someone being subject to law enforcement interference.
“The program is flawed and unnecessarily delays and harasses travelers. Taxpayer dollars would be better spent funding real police at TSA checkpoints,” the former manager said.
Another former Behavior Detection Officer manager, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told The Intercept that the program suffers from lack of science and has little to no consistency, as each airport trains their officers differently, thus having no standardized protocols.
“The SPOT program is bullshit,” the manager said. “Complete bullshit.”
The exposed confidential documents can be viewed here.
Jay Syrmopoulos is an investigative journalist, freethinker, researcher, and ardent opponent of authoritarianism. He is currently a graduate student at University of Denver pursuing a masters in Global Affairs. Jay's work has previously been published on BenSwann.com and WeAreChange.org. You can follow him on Twitter @sirmetropolis, on Facebook at Sir Metropolis and now on tsu.