TSA's behavior detection program lacks scientific basis, ACLU says

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The Transportation Security Administration overstated the scientific validity of a program that uses “behavior detection” to spot people who pose a security risk, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

In a report (PDF) released this month, the ACLU says academic research undermines the program’s premise: that TSA officers can reliably identify threats based on behaviors. The studies are in 13,000 pages of TSA files obtained in a freedom of information suit. The Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, USA Today and the ACLU Blog have stories.

TSA agents look for individuals showing stress, fear or deception based on a list of more than 90 indicators. The list includes behaviors sometimes associated with lying—such as fidgety gestures or averting a gaze—even though they are not reliable cues of deception, according to the ACLU. The program is called Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques, or “SPOT.”

A 2013 review of studies by the Government Accountability Office said the ability to spot suspicious behavior is only slightly better than chance.

The documents also included investigations of alleged racial profiling by behavior detection TSA agents in Newark, Chicago, Miami and Honolulu. “Those records highlight the ease with which behavioral indicators can be used as a pretext for harassing minorities and disfavored groups,” the ACLU blog asserts.

In a statement on Wednesday, the agency defended the program. “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,” the statement said. “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.”

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