Confirmed: TSA's Behavioral Detection Program Is Useless, Biased, And Based On Junk Science

from the come-fly-the-discriminatory-skies dept

Thanks to FOIA requests (and lawsuits), the ACLU has gathered enough documents to provide a comprehensive report [PDF] on the worthlessness of the TSA's "Behavioral Detection" program. Meant to give the agency a better way of proactively thwarting acts of terrorism, the program instead opts for lazy profiling, dubious readings of behavioral cues, and junk science.

The documents show the evolution of the behavior detection program and make clear the extent to which it is a program of surveillance of unsuspecting travelers based on unreliable indicators. “Behavior detection officers,” some of them dressed in plain clothes, scrutinize travelers at airports for over 90 behaviors that the TSA associates with stress, fear, or deception, looking for what the TSA calls signs of “mal-intent.” The reliability of these so-called indicators is not supported by the scientific studies in the TSA files. The behavior detection officers may then engage travelers in “casual conversation” that is actually an effort to probe the basis for any purported signs of deception. When the officers think they perceive those behaviors, they follow the travelers, subject them to additional screening, and at times bring in law enforcement officers who can investigate them further.

The TSA has repeatedly claimed that the behavior detection program is grounded in valid science, but the records that the ACLU obtained show that the TSA has in its possession a significant body of research that contradicts those claims. The records include numerous academic studies and articles that directly undermine the premise of the program: the notion that TSA officers can identify threats to aviation security with some reliability based on specific behaviors in an airport setting. In fact, the scientific literature in the TSA’s own files reinforces that deception detection is inherently unreliable, and that many of the behaviors the TSA is apparently relying on are actually useless in detecting deception. The documents further show that the TSA either overstated the scientific validity of behavior detection techniques in communications with members of Congress and government auditors, or did not disclose information that discredited the program’s scientific validity.

There's nothing good in the ACLU's findings. In addition to the contradictory lists of "behavioral indicators" that would make pretty much every traveler suspicious, the documents also include a "Behavioral Detection" presentation [PDF] that shows the compiler's inherent bias. For no appropriate reason, the presentation includes the following images:

Right above these questionable images is something just as questionable: a profile of "female suicide bombers" that pretty much encompasses the entirety of the female gender.

If you can't read/see the picture, the female suicide bomber profiles reads as follows:

Single, married, mothers or grandmothers

High school and college students

Working professionals such as lawyers, journalists, or medical practitioners

Devout or non-devout in religious beliefs

Intelligent, charming, and attractive

Very active in their cause

The cost of this program -- which simultaneously caters to biases while providing little in the way of useful targeting -- runs in the billions. In exchange, US taxpayers have received almost nothing that makes air travel safer. What they have obtained is the "opportunity" to be questioned without being detained, as TSA agents attempt to apply contradictory non-science to "casual" conversations most travelers feel compelled to engage in.

Engaging in mock-casual conversation with TSA agents is guaranteed to result in some level of suspicion, as it would be almost impossible not to.

The TSA’s list of behavioral indicators—long held secret but leaked to the press in March 2015—deepens our concerns about the program and calls into question whether it could ever be implemented neutrally and objectively. The list includes conduct as commonplace as being late for a flight, yawning, whistling, or rubbing one’s hands together. Other “indicators” are unavoidably subjective: appearing confused, “wearing improper attire,” “appearing not to understand questions,” or displaying “exaggerated emotions.”

In some cases, the TSA indicators place travelers in the difficult position of seeming deceptive to the TSA no matter what they do—whether they “give[] non-answers” to questions or they are “overly specific with answers”; whether they are “gazing down” or “constantly looking at other travelers or associates”; whether they have “no or little direct eye contact” or they have “widely open staring eyes.”

Putting agents in the position of sussing out potential terrorists with a long list of contradictory indicators does travelers and their safety no favors. When nothing can be reconciled against the TSA's disproven "science," agents are more likely to fall back on their own biases when vetting travelers. Hence the large number of non-white fliers "randomly" selected for additional screening.

The program hasn't made the TSA smarter or more nimble. All it's done is made flying even more unpleasant, especially for those that fit the "profile" the TSA provides… which is damn near everyone attempting to board a plane.

Filed Under: behavioral detection, dhs, junk science, searches, tsa
Companies: aclu


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Feb 2017 @ 9:54am

    Like a lot of law enforcement professionals, TSA agents have a lot of faith in their unprovable gut reactions. "I know a bad guy when I see one. I just know, okay?"

    The Behavioral Detection Program was never anything more than an attempt to find a way to legitimize the fact that an entire agency was being run on amorphous hunches and guesswork.

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