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ACLU Sues To Gain Access To TSA's Behavioral Profiling Program


And the Transportation Security Administration is coming under fire for a method it uses to spot possible terrorists. TSA has spent nearly a billion dollars to train airport security officers in behavioral detection. Critics say there is no evidence this program actually works. And now the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit to get the TSA to turn over details of the program. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: TSA calls its behavioral detection program SPOT, for Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques. It's been in effect since 2007, part of what the agency calls its layered approach to security. In addition to requiring passengers go through metal detectors and examining laptops, many TSA agents have been trained to look at passengers' behavior. Those travelers who raise suspicions are sent for additional pat downs or questioning. The ACLU, however, says the whole thing is based on pseudoscience. Staff attorney Hugh Handeyside.

HUGH HANDEYSIDE: The Government Accountability Office and independent scientific advisory groups have concluded that there's just no evidence that humans can reliably detect deception or ill intent in others based on their behavior.

NAYLOR: What's more, Handeyside says, the SPOT program has led TSA agents to single out some passengers.

HANDEYSIDE: The program has led to numerous allegations of racial and religious profiling, which isn't surprising given that you're basically giving TSA officers permission to make hasty, gut-level judgments about people's intentions based on nothing more than their facial expressions or their behavior.

NAYLOR: The ACLU filed a freedom of information request last October to get TSA to turn over proof that the program is working. When the agency failed to respond, the group filed a lawsuit. Behavioral scientists are skeptical that a TSA agent can spot someone intending to do harm based on their facial expressions or body language. Nicholas Epley is a professor at the University of Chicago.

NICHOLAS EPLEY: The data that comes from experiments that test whether people can detect these subtle kinds of cues suggest that it can't be detected very well. There are certainly lots of claims about how body language can be read better if you're trained, but a lot of those kinds of claims come without data to back them up.

NAYLOR: Leanne ten Brinke of UC Berkeley says there are cues or flags that an experienced observer might pick up, say, of fear. But the information is incomplete.

LEANNE TEN BRINKE: So in that kind of airport context, it could be fear of being caught for a criminal act, or it could be just a fear of flying. And so, you know, having a solid knowledge of behavioral cues and foundation is a great place to start. But we really need individuals to be able to follow up on that in some way.

NAYLOR: In an interview just before he left his post last December, former TSA administrator John Pistole defended the SPOT program.


JOHN PISTOLE: I believe that our behavioral technician officers do a good job of identifying people who are acting suspiciously.

NAYLOR: Still, the inspector general found that of the 30,000 passengers a year thought suspicious by the TSA, fewer than 1 percent were arrested, and then, for crimes such as suspected drugs or outstanding warrants, not plotting to attack an airplane. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.

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