The NYCLU and the American Civil Liberties Union took the Transportation Security Administration to court today in an effort to uncover documents about a controversial passenger screening program used at airports nationwide.
The program is called Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques, or SPOT. TSA “behavior detection officers” watch passengers in airport screening areas for behaviors that the TSA associates with stress, fear or deception – sometimes also engaging travelers in casual conversation. The officers then flag certain people for additional inspection and questioning.
Government investigators and outside experts have criticized SPOT as ineffective, unscientific and wasteful. The program has cost over $1 billion since 2007 and has been blamed by passengers and TSA officers themselves for numerous cases of racial profiling.
Today’s Freedom of Information Act lawsuit is seeking records related to any scientific basis for the program, its effectiveness and how much minorities are disproportionately singled out.
“What we know about SPOT suggests it wastes taxpayer money, leads to racial profiling and should be scrapped,” said Hugh Handeyside, staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project. “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. The discriminatory racial profiling that SPOT has apparently led to only reinforces that the public needs to know more about how this program is used and with what consequences for Americans’ rights.”
Both Congress’s Government Accountability Office and an independent scientific advisory group found that there is no evidence that people can identify deception by observing the behavior of others. The GAO report also found that the “behavioral indicators” officers are supposed to be looking for are subjective, and that referrals for additional screening varied significantly at different airports.
The TSA’s use of these techniques has resulted in numerous allegations of racial and religious profiling. TSA officers in Boston have reported witnessing other officers 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. Similar problems have been reported at Newark and Honolulu airports.
“New York’s major airports serve as a gateway to the United States, and New Yorkers rely on them for work, family visits and vacation,” said Mariko Hirose, staff attorney at the NYCLU. “We deserve to know more about what looks to be a completely unscientific and very expensive program that has only given rise to allegations of rampant racial profiling.”
A video released today by the ACLU about the SPOT program is here.