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21 Mar, 2015

ACLU Sues TSA for Records on Discredited US$1 billion ‘Behavior Detection’ Program at U.S. airports

March 19, 2015, NEW YORK – The American Civil Liberties Union and the NYCLU 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.

The TSA is refusing to release documents about the SPOT program’s effectiveness and racial profiling impact.

“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’ 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. A report by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general could not find any evidence that the program worked.

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.

A video released today by the ACLU about the SPOT program is at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NiUwwemwpok

The FOIA request and today’s complaint are at: https://www.aclu.org/national-security/aclu-v-tsa


As part of the program, thousands of “behavior detection” officers scrutinize the behavior of travelers in airport screening areas in an attempt to identify anyone who may pose a security risk. If they identify someone exhibiting a “cluster” of behaviors from a list of over 90 indicators that the TSA associates with stress, fear, or deception, they refer that person for secondary inspection or questioning.

The SPOT program lacks a scientific basis, is wholly ineffective, and has given rise to allegations of racial profiling. A scientific advisory group that reviewed the program found that “no scientific basis exists to support the detection or inference of future behavior, including intent.” The Government Accountability Office also found that it lacked a scientific basis and recommended that Congress curtail funding for the program. Passengers, as well as behavior detection officers themselves, have complained that this process results in unfair racial profiling.

The ACLU filed a FOIA request in October 2014 asking for records related to the program. The requested records include:

  • Any scientific data or research that would support the program
  • The training requirements for behavior detection officers
  • The extent to which the program disproportionately impacts minorities