$1 Billion TSA Behavioral Screening Program Slammed as Ineffective “Junk Science”

Monday, March 23, 2015
TSA behavior detection officer at work (photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta, AP)

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has been accused of spending a billion dollars on a passenger-screening program that’s based on junk science.


The claim arose in a lawsuit (pdf) filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which has tried unsuccessfully to get the TSA to release documents on its SPOT (Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques) [pdf]) program through the Freedom of Information Act.


SPOT, whose techniques were first used in 2003 and formalized in 2007, uses “highly questionable” screening techniques, according to the ACLU complaint, while being “discriminatory, ineffective, pseudo-scientific, and wasteful of taxpayer money.” TSA has spent at least $1 billion on SPOT.


The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported in 2010 that “TSA deployed SPOT nationwide before first determining whether there was a scientifically valid basis for using behavior detection and appearance indicators as a means for reliably identifying passengers as potential threats in airports,” according to the ACLU. And in 2013, GAO recommended that the agency spend less money on the program, which uses 3,000 “behavior detection officers” whose jobs is to identify terrorists before they board jetliners.


The ACLU contends SPOT uses racial profiling, even though TSA has a zero-tolerance policy for such singling out of people based on their ethnicity. The lawsuit says “passengers, as well as behavior detection officers themselves, have complained that this process results in subjecting people of Middle Eastern descent or appearance, African Americans, Hispanics, and other minorities to additional questioning and screening solely on the basis of their race.” Furthermore, “there is no known instance in which these techniques were responsible for apprehending someone who posed a security threat” after years of using SPOT.

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

TSA Asked to Divulge Screening Techniques (by Adam Klasfeld, Courthouse News Service)

ACLU Sues TSA over Behavior Screening Program (by Bart Jansen, USA Today)

American Civil Liberties Union v. Transportation Security Administration (U.S. District Court, Southern New York) (pdf)

Request Under Freedom of Information Act/Expedited Processing Requested (American Civil Liberties Union) (pdf)

TSA Behavior Detection Technique Deemed Not Much Better than “Chance” (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


BG 9 years ago
May 2015: nothing has improved. TSA is even worse than the article says. For example, the TSA website provides no way to report to TSA gross security violations by TSA personnel. At JFK, non-prescreened passengers are routinely sent through the pre-screened passenger line (which is subject to less security). The only reason for this is that the TSA people at JFK feel like it. This isn't security, it is a joke. A potentially very dangerous joke.
bob 9 years ago
"For a behavioral identification program to be effective it needs to be secret." - no, for a behavioral identification program to be effective it needs to have some basis in science. This kind of stuff has been studied extensively and it doesn't work. If you think it does, you've been watching too many movies.
mirageseekr 9 years ago
I do not travel much and I very rarely travel by air as I have a phobia of it. According to the SPOT program though I would be singled out for the mere fact that flying produces anxiety attacks. The "underwear bomber" was helped onto the plane by government sources and only stopped by passengers. The over reaction to the "threat" they created? Worthless body scanners, but who cares right? It is the taxpayers money after all.I would like for people to realize how they create these threats, if they can not however come to terms with the fact that the government could give a shit about them then at least get pissed off about how you're money is being wasted. I believe good old Dick ordered our military to attack itself and I believe he played a big part in 9-11 so where are the people of good conscious? Why will they not step forward together to put this psychopathic, murdering, war criminal behind bars?
Gordon 9 years ago
For a behavioral identification program to be effective it needs to be secret. 1. Anyone wanting to avoid detection who can read the profile and dress/act differently. 2. The danger is that it institutionalizes racial and cultural profiling. The claim that it is wasting public money is a little difficult to prove, as the alternative would be to stop and search every person, and see what the real profile of offenders is.
seven 9 years ago
The ACLU us a civil rights organization, William. It doesn't matter if you're unaware of the difference, they're exactly who's qualified to critique and challenge SPOT. You're ignorance is baffling. That's like suggesting that the National Organization for Women isn't qualified to review gender equality policies.
william 9 years ago
The ACLU is a political organization that's not qualified to make a review of SPOT whatsoever, and has a means to an end to condemn such a program for its own political agenda. The ACLU couldn't possibly be anymore biased of a source to review SPOT, as it's not a non-partisan, scientific source of psychology or sociology.

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