When at the airport, do you ever run late for a flight, yawn, whistle or rub your hands together a lot? Maybe you appear confused, wear a coat in summer, or display exaggerated emotions? Blink a lot or cover your mouth with your hand?
If so, you better watch out…you are being watched by a team of nearly 3,000 plain-clothed or uniformed “behavior protection officers” stationed at airports across the country.
The American Civil Liberties Union wants Congress to shut down a Transportation Security Administration program of surreptitious traveler surveillance, based on an investigation of internal TSA documents.
TSA’s Behavior Detection Program, which started seven years ago, trains the agency’s airport officers to look for passengers who exhibit suspicious, fearful or stressed-out behavior, and subject them to more intense scrutiny in security screenings.
The ACLU used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain internal TSA documents about the program. The organization said the documents indicate that the behaviors watched for by TSA officers are “unreliable,” according to academic studies included in the TSA files; and that TSA’s Behavior Detection officers – some of whom are in plain clothes at airports – sometimes engage in “racial and religious profiling” in their hunt for suspicious individuals.
You can download the full ACLU report here.
The ACLU charged that TSA’s Behavior Detection program “goes beyond vigilance and uses surveillance to impose consequences on travelers.” The main consequence is the intensified screening procedure they must undergo, “but the TSA’s documents also suggest that the TSA communicates directly with air carriers about some passengers after screening them, and that the carriers have then barred some of the passengers from boarding their flights.”
The so-called behavioral indicators that officers are supposed to look for are “inherently subjective,” the ACLU said, and TSA’s own files suggest that in many cases, its officers were seeing suspicious behavior when it didn’t exist, or were blowing it out of proportion – “a troubling sign of the subjectivity of the indicators and the discretion behavior detection officers wield in ‘observing’ them.”
It cited TSA guidelines that said officers should look for passengers exhibiting a “trancelike state,” who are wearing “inappropriate clothing,” and who are “avoiding direct contact with others.” The ACLU said such guidelines are “so subjective and vague as to be useless.”
Other documents in the TSA files, the ACLU said, indicate that the agency’s behavior detection officers showed “a disproportionate focus on, and in some cases overt bias against, Arabs, Muslims, and those of Middle Eastern or South Asian descent.”
TSA’s training also warned its officers to be especially on the lookout for women who could be suicide bombers. The training material said this was because “females tend to be more emotional and therefore easier to indoctrinate.”
What do you think? Is behavior detection a cover for racial or religious profiling? Do you think it helps keep us safe? Please leave your comments below.
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