The Transportation Security Administration uses full-body scanners and other equipment to gauge whether travelers are a threat or not. And as much as it sucks to go through the TSA’s invasive X-ray and scanning checkpoints, it turns out the TSA’s tactics are pretty messed up even when they’re low-tech.
One of the TSA’s lowest-tech methods of sniffing out potential terrorists— Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques, or SPOT, which is seriously just deciding whether or not someone is sketchy based on how they act—has been used to identify unauthorized immigrants far more than it has terrorists, according to The Intercept:
But in one five-week period at a major international airport in the United States in 2007, the year the program started, only about 4 percent of the passengers who were referred to secondary screening or law enforcement by behavior detection officers were arrested, and nearly 90 percent of those arrests were for being in the country illegally, according to a TSA document obtained by The Intercept.
The TSA spent $900 million on a program that essentially boils down to “hey look out for nervous-looking people who don’t speak English.”
This just goes to show you that the TSA doesn’t even need to turn on the body scanner to step way over the line. SPOT is only a screening methodology by name—it is thoroughly unscientific profiling. The Intercept’s report makes it clear yet again that airport security is in desperate need of an overhaul.
Update 5:15 ET: A TSA spokesperson contacted me with a statement on how the agency’s behavioral screening program—which is now called Behavior Detection and Analysis, not SPOT—works:
“Behavior detection, which is just one element of the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) efforts to mitigate threats against the traveling public, is vital to TSA’s layered approach to deter, detect and disrupt individuals who pose a threat to aviation.
“Terrorists have used a variety of items and ways to attempt to inflict harm to aircraft — everything from shoes to liquids — but consistent across all methods of attack is the malicious intent of the actor. Looking for suspicious behavior is a common sense approach used by law enforcement and security personnel across the country and the world, that focuses on those behavioral indicators, rather than items, and when used in combination with other security layers helps mitigate a variety of threats.
“The Behavior Detection and Analysis (BDA) program is designed to detect individuals who exhibit anomalous behaviors indicating they fear discovery and may pose a risk to aviation security. The program was created by TSA, using behavior analysis techniques that have been successfully employed by law enforcement and security personnel both in the U.S. and internationally. No single behavior alone will cause a traveler to be referred to additional screening or will result in a call to a law enforcement officer (LEO). Officers are trained and audited to ensure referrals for additional screening are based only on observable behaviors and not race or ethnicity.”
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