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Airport securityTSA continues to use unscientific, unreliable program blamed for profiling

Published 8 February 2017

Thousands of Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officers use so-called “behavior detection” techniques to scrutinize travelers for yawning, whistling, being distracted, arriving late for a flight, and scores of other behaviors that the TSA calls signs of deception or “mal-intent.” The officers then flag certain people for additional screening and questioning. Documents the ACLU has obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit show that the TSA itself has plenty of material showing that such techniques are not grounded in valid science — and they create an unacceptable risk of racial and religious profiling. Indeed, TSA officers themselves have said that the program has been used to do just that.

Thousands of Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officers use so-called “behavior detection” techniques to scrutinize travelers for yawning, whistling, being distracted, arriving late for a flight, and scores of other behaviors that the TSA calls signs of deception or “mal-intent.” The officers then flag certain people for additional screening and questioning.

Hugh Handeyside, Staff Attorney for the ACLU National Security Project, writes in blog post that documents the ACLU has obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit show that the TSA itself has plenty of material showing that such techniques are not grounded in valid science — and they create an unacceptable risk of racial and religious profiling. Indeed, TSA officers themselves have said that the program has been used to do just that.

“We got more than 13,000 pages of documents from the TSA, and today we’re releasing a report on what we found. In the past, government auditors, members of Congress from both parties, and independent experts have labeled the program wasteful and ineffective. Our study reinforces these conclusions, and more,” Handeyside writes.

Here are the top five things the ACLU has learned from the TSA’s documents:

1. Studies in the TSA’s own files reinforce that the TSA’s use of behavior detection is unscientific and unreliable.
The TSA turned over numerous academic and scientific research studies. Instead of supporting the program, the literature directly undercuts the notion that officers can detect deceit or bad intentions based on people’s behavior with any reliability, especially in a place like the airport.

The social science literature in the TSA’s files even includes specific findings that behaviors people commonly associate with lying — gaze aversion, nervous or fidgety gestures, or placement of hands over the mouth — are not reliable cues to deception. But the TSA’s secret list of indicators includes those very behaviors, along with others for which there is no empirical support.

These documents suggest that the TSA has persisted in maintaining a behavior detection program that is at odds with the scientific studies in its own files.