Newly released documents from the Transportation Security Administration appear to confirm the concerns of critics who say that the agency’s controversial program that relies on body language, appearance, and particular behaviors to select passengers for extra screening in airports has little basis in science and has led to racial profiling.
Files turned over to the American Civil Liberties Union under the Freedom of Information Act include a range of studies that undermines the program’s premise, demonstrating that attempts to look for physical signs of deception are highly subjective and unreliable. Also among the files are presentations and reports from the TSA and other law enforcement agencies that put forth untested theories of how to profile attackers and rely on broad stereotypes about Muslims.
The TSA has deployed behavior detection officers, or BDOs, at security checkpoints and in plainclothes throughout airports to look for travelers exhibiting behaviors that might betray fear, stress, or deception. According to the documents, these officers engage in “casual conversations” such that the passengers don’t realize they “have undergone any deliberate line of questioning.”
These spotters can pick people out for extra screening, refer them to law enforcement or immigration authorities, or block them from boarding a plane.
Looking out for suspicious behaviors is hardly surprising, but TSA’s approach has been roundly criticized by government watchdogs and outside observers who say there’s no scientific basis for the clues the officers rely on as indicators. The program — previously known as “SPOT,” for Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques, and now called “Behavior Detection and Analysis” — has cost $1.5 billion since it was rolled out in 2007, according to a recent inspector general’s report.