By Yaël Ossowski |

The Transportation Security Administration is defending its
controversial “behavior detection program” against a torrent of
criticism by civil libertarians and a fresh lawsuit by the American
Civil Liberties Union.

“The Behavior Detection and Analysis (BDA) program is designed to
detect individuals who exhibit anomalous behaviors indicating they fear
discovery and may pose a risk to aviation security,” TSA spokesman Ross
Feinstein wrote in an email to “Officers are trained and
audited to ensure referrals for additional screening are based only on
observable behaviors and not race or ethnicity.”

That was the TSA’s reaction to the lawsuit filed by the ACLU on March 19,
excoriating the agency for refusing to release documents on the
Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques program, known as
behavior detection.

Among other claims made in the lawsuit, the ACLU says the program in
place at airports across the country is wasteful and sets up a system of
racial profiling.

“What we know about SPOT suggests it wastes taxpayer money, leads to
racial profiling and should be scrapped,” said Hugh Handeyside, an ACLU

“The TSA has insisted on keeping documents about SPOT secret, but the
agency can’t hide the fact that there’s no evidence the program works.”

The October 2003 program, according to the Department of Homeland
Security, was put in place to “identify persons who pose a risk to
aviation security by focusing on behavioral and appearance indicators.”

Rather than solely focus on an individual’s belongings put through
airport security, the program observes behavior of passengers while
they’re standing in line awaiting screening.

“Behavior detection, which is just one element of the TSA’s efforts
to mitigate threats against the traveling public, is vital to TSA’s
layered approach to deter, detect and disrupt individuals who pose a
threat to aviation,” Feinstein said.

Critics claim only racial minorities and Arab-Americans have been
targeted, and demonstrate it is an affront to the civil liberties of
every American.

“The discriminatory racial profiling that SPOT has apparently led to
only reinforces that the public needs to know more about how this
program is used and with what consequences for Americans’ rights,”
Handeyside said.

Even government auditors have raised flags on the issue of the program’s effectiveness.

A Congressional Budget Office report
from 2010 uncovered the program’s “staffing levels” were the only
performance metric to be found. According to the TSA, hiring of more
behavior detection experts was the only way to “gauge how fast the
program is growing.”

Though the program was set up to deter terrorists, the program has no
way to measuring whether it’s even come close to that goal.

Also found in the report is the revelation that most of the
techniques employed by TSA agents for behavior detection are the work of
Paul Ekman, professor of psychology at the University of California
Medical School in San Francisco, one of the world’s foremost experts on
facial expressions.

Ekman says it “was not clear” whether this program could even be
“used effectively in an airport environment,” a place where individuals
are routinely stressed and under pressure.

But despite this criticism, the TSA is relentless in defending the
program and claiming it has been effective at deterring terrorists.

“Terrorists have used a variety of items and ways to attempt to
inflict harm to aircraft — everything from shoes to liquids — but
consistent across all methods of attack is the malicious intent of the
actor,” Feinstein told

“Looking for suspicious behavior is a common sense approach used by
law enforcement and security personnel across the country and the world,
that focuses on those behavioral indicators, rather than items, and
when used in combination with other security layers helps mitigate a
variety of threats.”