By Kate Rhudy on February 11, 2011

The Transportation Security Administration's (TSA) use of privacy-violating full-body imaging scanners in U.S. airports has provoked a public outcry and garnered extensive media attention, but dozens of other questionable TSA initiatives have gone largely unnoticed, including the Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program launched in 2006.

The SPOT program trains TSA officers to detect potential terrorists at airport checkpoints by monitoring for facial expressions and other behaviors that may signal heightened levels of stress, fear, or deception. With an annual price tag of $221 million, the program has trained and deployed about 3,000 behavioral detection officers to 161 airports nationwide.

Privacy and Civil Liberties Impact

SPOT program GAO reportWhat is most worrisome about the SPOT program is its potential impact on the privacy and civil liberties of countless innocent passengers. A May 2010 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that behavioral detection officers had referred more than 150,000 travelers who exhibited "suspicious behavior" for secondary inspection, but none proved to be a terrorist. The SPOT program has the commendable goal of screening passengers based on purportedly objective measures of behavior rather than relying on racial, ethnic, or religious profiling. However, it is unclear whether, in practice, the program is sweeping up a disproportionate number of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities, and any screening system that relies on human discretion raises concerns about inappropriate profiling.

The stakes are high for travelers that are singled out for allegedly suspicious behavior. According to a Privacy Impact Assessment of the SPOT program conducted by the Department of Homeland Security, the identity of individuals who are subjected to secondary inspection can be entered into the Transportation Information Security System, a database of the Federal Air Marshal Service, irrespective of whether they have done anything illegal. The identifying information for such travelers can be retained for up to 25 years.

Moreover, the intrusion on the rights of travelers who are subjected to secondary screening cannot be understated. Travelers are sometimes detained and questioned for hours with little or no basis for suspicion. For example, in August 2009, a college student was handcuffed and detained for nearly five hours after TSA officials at Philadelphia International Airport singled him out simply for carrying Arabic language flashcards.

Inadequate Testing, Few Civil Liberties Protections, and Lots of Waste

The SPOT program is yet another example of the TSA’s rush to adopt new procedures and technologies without adequate testing and without including privacy and civil liberties safeguards. The GAO found that the TSA launched the SPOT program without first validating the scientific basis for the program and despite substantial disagreement within the scientific community about the effectiveness of these behavioral monitoring techniques.

The TSA has wasted many millions of dollars on unproven and ultimately ineffective airport security programs, such as spending more than $30 million for the purchase and maintenance of 207 explosive detection portals, more commonly known as “puffer” machines. More than half of these devices were never deployed, and all but a handful were decommissioned after the TSA learned – far too late – that the machines cannot function properly outside the laboratory given the levels of dirt and humidity that is typical in airports.

If the TSA follows the GAO’s recommendation to undertake extensive testing of the SPOT program, including commissioning an analysis by an independent panel of experts, it may be revealed that this program is similarly ineffective – and that hundreds of millions of tax dollars could have been better spent if the TSA had more thoroughly assessed the effectiveness of this behavioral screening before deploying it nationwide. Indeed, the GAO reports that, since 2006, at least 16 alleged terrorists have traveled through airports that employ the SPOT program without being singled out for suspicious behavior.

Congress, Keep an Eye on TSA

Representative John L. Mica (R-FL), the new Chairman of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure of the U.S. House of Representatives, has been an outspoken critic of the SPOT program and other TSA abuses. The GAO conducted its assessment of the SPOT program last year following a request from his office. We are hopeful that Chairman Mica will exercise his leadership to assure strong Congressional oversight of this program and of the TSA as a whole. Reforms are badly needed to make the TSA more accountable for the effectiveness of its initiatives and the protection of the privacy and civil liberties of all travelers.