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The TSA Has Been Spying on You (And Worse)

An incredible, unsettling report from the ACLU, using the documents obtained from the TSA, details patterns of racial and religious profiling, dubious tactics, and shaky science in that agency’s behavior detection program.

The report is based on the TSA’s own materials, obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request, which “show the evolution of the behavior detection program and make clear the extent to which it is a program of surveillance of unsuspecting travelers based on unreliable indicators.”

The ACLU summarizes this behavior detection program thusly (emphasis mine):

“Behavior detection officers,” some of them dressed in plain clothes, scrutinize travelers at airports for over 90 behaviors that the TSA associates with stress, fear, or deception, looking for what the TSA calls signs of “mal-intent.” The reliability of these so-called indicators is not supported by the scientific studies in the TSA files. The behavior detection officers may then engage travelers in “casual conversation” that is actually an effort to probe the basis for any purported signs of deception. When the officers think they perceive those behaviors, they follow the travelers, subject them to additional screening, and at times bring in law enforcement officers who can investigate them further.

The TSA has repeatedly claimed that the behavior detection program is grounded in valid science, but the records that the ACLU obtained show that the TSA has in its possession a significant body of research that contradicts those claims … In fact, the scientific literature in the TSA’s own files reinforces that deception detection is inherently unreliable, and that many of the behaviors the TSA is apparently relying on are actually useless in detecting deception. The documents further show that the TSA either overstated the scientific validity of behavior detection techniques in communications with members of Congress and government auditors, or did not disclose information that discredited the program’s scientific validity.

Basically, the TSA has been engaging in a program that is discredited by its own documented research.

Further, these deception detection techniques lead, perhaps inevitably, to profiling. The documents uncovered by the TSA include “materials that range from culturally insensitive to racially and religiously biased and sexist,” along with “previously undisclosed internal investigative materials” into allegations of racial and religious profiling at various airports.

Not only were these investagtions hidden from the public, but in many cases the allegations themselves were kept secret due to “TSA officials’ concern that public disclosure of the details of the profiling could threaten the behavior detection program.”

The full report elicits a full range of emotional responses, from puzzling to disturbing. In one case, the report cites materials that suggest “indicators” for identifying potential suicide bombers, which include “sweating, fidgeting,” “walking with deliberation but not running,” and—wait for it—a head’s up that the “suspect may be carrying heavy luggage, bag or wearing a backpack.” Because that’s a distinguishing feature. In an airport.

The ACLU notes that this program “has long been criticized as unscientific, ineffective, and wasteful” and has been blamed by officers and passengers alike for instance of racial and religious bias. And now that the TSA’s own documents verify these criticisms, the ACLU recommends that Congress “discontinue funding the TSA’s behavior detection program and that the TSA implement a rigorous anti-discrimination training program for its workforce.”

After reading this mind-boggling report, it’s hard to argue with that conclusion.

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