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Feeling Nervous? 3,000 Behavior Detection Officers Will Be Watching You at the Airport This Thanksgiving

Nearly 100,000 passengers were pulled aside by TSA behavior watchers last year, and it remains to be proven whether you can spot terrorists by the looks on their faces.
 
 
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Here's a question to ponder the next time you're taking off your shoes at airport security: Can you spot terrorists by the look on their faces?

For the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the answer is yes. For the past few years, airports across the country have been using what many call "behavioral surveillance" to weed out potential hijackers among us, by covertly examining travelers' facial expressions and body language as they go through security. Unlike those airport employees who herd us along as we remove our shoes and relinquish all liquids over three ounces (with dubious results), this new program, named "Screening Passengers by Observational Techniques," or "SPOT," is carried out by TSA employees who have been trained to monitor travelers' faces and movements. As Americans head out of town this holiday season, more than 3,000 "Behavior Detection Officers" will be at 161 airports nationwide, watching our every move.

The TSA boasts that the SPOT program is "derivative of other successful behavioral analysis programs that have been employed by law enforcement and security personnel both in the U.S. and around the world." Yet, the success of the SPOT program remains highly questionable. This month the Washington Post reported that, in 2008 alone, Behavior Detection Officers across the country pulled 98,805 passengers aside for additional screenings, out of which 9,854 were questioned by local police. 813 were eventually arrested.

The cost of the program, according to TSA spokesperson Ann Davis, was $3.1 million.

In an e-mail correspondence with AlterNet, Davis could not say how many of the 813 arrests led to convictions -- or for that matter, whether any terrorists were caught. "Many of the SPOT cases that resulted in arrests remain under active investigation by law enforcement," she said. "TSA doesn't always hear back from the investigative agencies on the outcome of the cases so we cannot track convictions."

But as Stephen Soldz, Director of the Center for Research, Evaluation, and Program Development at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis points out, "Even if the arrests are justified, they are less than 1 percent of the total singled out. What happens to more than 9,000 who are subjected to questioning and released?"

This question cuts to the heart of protests by civil liberties advocates and others who argue that, not only is the SPOT program a violation of people's privacy, but it is actually counterproductive, a wasteful exercise in false positives.

"By the math alone, rare events are impossible to accurately detect," says Soldz. "One will either miss most of what one is interested in [false negatives] or else identify many people falsely [false positives]."

Jay Stanley, Director of Public Education for the ACLU's Technology and Liberty Program, concurs. "The problem with the SPOT program," he told AlterNet, "is that it is based on trying to stop terrorism by searching for supposed 'signs of terrorism' that are so commonplace that it results in an increase in the monitoring of individuals to no good end."

"We Need to Use Them Everywhere"

Like the Department of Homeland Security that oversees it, the SPOT program is a post-9/11 phenomenon, partly inspired by the surveillance tapes that showed the 9/11 hijackers making their way through security at Boston's Logan Airport.

According to TSA analyst Carl Maccario, each man kept his eyes low to the ground, avoiding the gaze of the airport security guards. "They all looked away and had their heads down," he told USA Today in 2005. As the federal government looked for new ways to augment its counterterror tools after the attacks, the TSA set out to develop a program that would seek to identify would-be terrorists based on this type of behavior. Like the Pentagon, FBI, and CIA, the TSA sought out an army of psychologists to lend their expertise.