Behavior Profiling: Ineffective and Expensive Security Theater

About Thomas Cincotta

Behavioral profiling, the latest trend in pre-emptive policing, has been used in America’s airport terminals since 2003 when the Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program was implemented by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) across the United States. This past May, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GOA) issued a report assessing the program’s effectiveness, how much validity was established before SPOT went nationwide, and any improvements that could be made. The results reveal serious flaws in the SPOT program’s makeup and implementation.

The success of the initiative has yet to be seen in regards to counterterrorism; no scientific basis currently exists that supports the idea that mere observation of people’s behaviors can lead to identifying those with terrorist inclinations. Despite this lack of factual groundwork, airport security is increasingly relying on SPOT to locate people who may seem suspicious. Security officers may also be utilizing databases and other resources to identify the people pointed out by Behavior Detection Officers.

This $212 million dollar a year endeavor, which TSA wants $20 million more for 2011, has yet to uncover a single terrorist. [1] On top of that, the GOA reports, 16 people who have been previously flagged as terrorist sympathizers or accomplices were never picked up (or “spotted”) by Behavior Detection Officers despite having “moved through SPOT airports on at least 23 different occasions.”

“If the GAO weren’t so kind and subtly state it, this report would be rather damning,” mentioning that of the SPOT program’s “152,000 secondary referrals, only 1,100 have resulted in arrests, less then half of which might have anything to do with terrorism, and zero actual terrorists have been caught,” said Jim Harper, member of the Department of Homeland Security’s Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee during an oversight hearing.

When Harper asked U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano for her remarks on the report during the July hearing, she alleged she was not aware of the GOA’s report. She has yet to make any public comments concerning the effectiveness of the SPOT program.

The GOA report recommends that TSA introduce an independent review panel to evaluate the SPOT program and that security officers make better use of the different resources available to them. The GOA acknowledged that TSA lacked “outcome oriented measures” to review SPOT’s progress, but falls short of recognizing its obvious ineffectiveness. Merely observing a random pool of the public will never be a sufficient method to prevent terrorist attacks. Instead, it provides opportunities for routine racial profiling and detaining innocent people for questioning, a blatant Fourth Amendment infringement.

Organizations including Political Research Associates rightly take issue with such flagrant violations on civil liberties, especially as the SPOT program has yet to locate a single terrorist in its years of operation. There is no reason for Americans to continue allowing their tax dollars to fund this piece of security theater. The initiative has yet to make anyone safer in the air—instead, it allows the government to hamper freedom and interrupt the personal lives of everyday citizens.

[1] Roger Yu, 24 May, 2010, “Airport Check-in: TSA Behavior Screening Misses Suspects,” USA Today, accessed 25 July, 2010.

Thomas Cincotta is the former civil liberties program director at Political Research Associates. A criminal defense lawyer, he led the Denver chapter of the National Lawyers Guild [] (NLG) in support of peace groups and others during the 2008 Democratic National Convention, and connected progressive lawyers with other community efforts around sentencing reform, immigrant rights, and police misconduct. He also represented migrant farm workers and served on the board of El Centro Humanitario