Have you ever waited in an airport security line without looking at the other travelers around you? Have you ever blinked, yawned, or blushed? Have you ever ignored someone nearby trying to make awkward conversation while waiting for your flight?
If you’ve done any of these things in a U.S. airport, you may have been the subject of covert surveillance by Transportation Security Administration (TSA) security employees, according to a new report, and tracked around the airport by teams of undercover officers as part of its behavior detection program.
A collection of TSA documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit show TSA policies also helped facilitate abusive and racist behavior by security officers. The program has been in place since 2007, with the TSA spending at least $1.5 billion supporting it from 2007 to 2015.
“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,” states the ACLU report. “‘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.”
After reading through more than 600 internal TSA documents, the ACLU found that security techniques originally intended to screen passengers while waiting in a security line expanded into airport terminals beginning in 2009. The criteria for an officer to become suspicious of a traveler is extremely vague and open to interpretation; if an officer starts a conversation with a traveler and the traveler doesn’t want to chat, for instance, the TSA can revoke boarding privileges.
Officers are also supposed to look for subjective signals of ill-intent like having a pale face from a recently-shaved beard or walking with deliberation, but not acting like you’re in a hurry.
The TSA has plenty of evidence that its behavior detection program is subjective and doesn’t work, from academic sources and scientific research, but continued to run the program in airports across the country. Documents also reveal that anti-muslim profiling took place, particularly airports in Boston, New York, Miami, Chicago, and even Honolulu.
“We do not know whether the TSA misinterpreted or misrepresented the material in its own files, but these statements to lawmakers and officials charged with oversight of the TSA’s programs are troubling, and they further undermine the legitimacy of the TSA’s behavior detection program,” concludes the report.
You can read the full report below.