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"ACLU: Spotting terrorists by behavior at airports doesn't work"
Thursday, February 9, 2017
ACLU: Spotting terrorists by behavior at airports doesn't work
By Bart Jansen
The Transportation Security Administration program to spot suspected terrorists
based on deceptive behavior among travelers is unreliable and raises questions
about racial and religious bias, according to a report from the American Civil
Liberties Union based on documents in TSA files.
The program that peaked at about 3,000 behavior detection officers, has long
been contentious in Congress. Government watchdogs have urged reduced spending
on the program because of the difficulty proving scientifically that criminals
or terrorists could be spotted by suspicious behavior.
But TSA administrators have defended and expanded the program as a
crucial layer of aviation security.
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 28-page report obtained by USA TODAY reviewed TSA investigations of
allegations of racial and religious discrimination and uncovered details that
haven't been 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.
"It should go without saying that our government shouldn't be implementing
programs that are either scientifically bogus or that raise the risk of
unlawful racial and religious profiling," said Hugh Handeyside, staff attorney
in ACLU's National Security Project. "There is no indication - at least
according to what the TSA has in its own files - that this kind of program can
be done in a reliable and scientifically valid way in an airport context."
TSA stood by its approach to behavior detection in a statement Wednesday,
saying that detecting deceptive behavior doesn't become obsolete when the
adversary develops a new weapon or tactic. TSA said behavior detection is no
longer a separate program, and those officers were integrated into the agency's
workforce, under 2016 legislation governing the Federal Aviation Administration.
"TSA's behavior detection approach is designed to identify and engage
individuals who may be high-risk (e.g., possess malicious intent) on the basis
of an objective process using behavioral indicators and thresholds, and then
route them to additional security screening," TSA said in the statement. "It is
one element of TSA's efforts to mitigate threats against the traveling public,
and is critical to TSA's systems approach to deter, detect, and disrupt
individuals who pose a threat to aviation."
The behavior detection program began in 2007 and was called SPOT, for Screening
of Passengers by Observation Techniques. The goal was for officers roaming
through airports, either in uniform or plainclothes, to detect behavioral clues
for deception that might signal a traveler's intent to commit violence.
Watchdogs have long been skeptical.
A review of 400 studies over 60 years found the chance of spotting deceptive
behavior only slightly better than flipping a coin, according to a Government
Accountability Office report in November 2013.
During 2011 and 2012, behavior detection officers referred 8,700 travelers at
49 airports to law enforcement officers, GAO found. The referrals led to 365
arrests, mostly for suspected drugs or immigration status, but not terrorism.
Among the 110,000 referral records from 2009 through 2012, the inspector
general for the Department of Homeland Security found 7,019 didn't identify the
officer involved, 1,194 didn't meet the criteria for referral, and 143 didn't
contain an airport code where the incident took place.
The watchdogs have repeatedly urged a reduction in spending on the program that
totaled $1.5 billion through 2015. Lawmakers including Rep. Bennie Thompson of
Mississippi, the top Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee, have
repeatedly called for program to be abolished and the officers shifted to
"We think the program should simply be discontinued," Handeyside said.
But TSA administrators have defended and expanded the program.
John Pistole, who was TSA administrator from 2010 to 2014, finalized the
program's mission statement, goals and objectives in December 2012. The program
"is effective and has been validated and determined to identify substantially
more high-risk travelers than a random screening protocol," Pistole told a
House hearing in June 2013.
Peter Neffenger, who was TSA administrator for a year and a half until
departing for the new administration Jan. 20, told a Senate panel last June
that security agencies around the world use behavior detection, which shows
there is some value to what will never be a perfect system. He said
modifications were possible to make it more scientifically valid.
The ACLU lawsuit uncovered cases and details about episodes of alleged racial
profiling at specific airports that haven't been previously reported:
. A Newark investigation that became public in 2011 led to the demotion of a
behavior detection manager. The ACLU report said TSA rightly investigated the
case and took some corrective action, but also uncovered additional details
about the case.
The deputy assistant federal security director who investigated the case found
"overwhelming evidence" that the manager ordered officers to require greater
scrutiny for Dominicans, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans based on "non-existent"
behaviors and to make improper referrals to Customs and Border Protection.
Two security managers based in Boston also found "it is reasonable to conclude
that a procedure for profiling or identifying illegal aliens was implemented by
several" officers at Newark.
. In Miami, a 2014 investigation found at least 10 officers reported that their
manager "provided false or misleading information" to other officers to
scrutinize travelers more.
. At Chicago's O'Hare airport, a 2013 investigation began after an officer
submitted an anonymous letter that claimed officers were encouraged to focus on
travelers of Middle Eastern descent boarding Royal Jordanian and Etihad Airways
TSA found no evidence of racial profiling in the case because only nine
passengers were turned over to law enforcement during the period in question.
. In Honolulu, a TSA investigation that became public in 2011 found
insufficient evidence that two officers engaged in profiling.
But the ACLU report said that conclusions in Chicago and Honolulu were based on
the lack of arrests rather than extra screening, which wasn't counted.
TSA doesn't reveal what behaviors trigger scrutiny. But a TSA list leaked to
the Intercept Web-based publication in March 2015 described suspicious behavior
including gazing down, avoiding eye contact, yawning, whistling, rubbing hands
together, appearing confused and exaggerating emotions.
Academic papers that the ACLU reviewed from TSA's files said that facial
behaviors, the rate of blinking, placement of hands over mouth, vagueness or
evasiveness and vocal stress don't reliably signal deception.
Aldert Vrij, a psychology professor at the University of Portsmouth who has
written research papers in TSA's files, said there aren't clear patterns of
"No, they do not exist," Vrij, author of Detecting Lies and Deceit, told USA
TODAY. "Non-verbal cues to deceit are feigned and unreliable."
Airports are places were travelers are under stress for a variety of reasons,
so signs of nervousness arise for reasons other than bad intentions, he said.
"Neither is it clear whether wrongdoers will display signs of nervousness,"
Vrij said. "In all likelihood, they expect investigators to look out for such
signs so they may try to suppress them, with success."
Maria Hartwig, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who also
wrote articles in TSA files, said detecting lies based on simple observation is
"very difficult." Screening programs should abandon behavioral observation
because it will likely fail to protect against real threats, she said.
"Over half a century of research shows that liars do not betray themselves by
signs of stress or discomfort," Hartwig told USA TODAY. "In other words, there
is no Pinocchio's nose."
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