Behavior Profiling: Ineffective and Expensive Security Theater

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.

TIPS Reduce: LAPD to expand iWatch Program

The Los Angeles Police Department encourages the public to spy on neighbors and file suspicious activity reports about innocent (non-criminal) activities that seem out of place through its “iWatch” program. A new report by Political Research Associates explains how such programs practically invite racial, ethnic, and religious profiling that not only harms individuals who get singled out, but is ultimately counter-productive in terms of combatting terrorism. This program violates existing rules on domestic intelligence collection because tips need not relate to a crime, but can be something that “raises suspicion.”

In a recent article in Emergency Management, public information director for the LAPD Mary Grady discusses how the iWatch program will be expanded in April 2010 by translating literature and public service announcements into Spanish, Korean, Vietnamese, and Mandarin. According to Grady, the iWatch program has generated several dozen reports from the public so far. It is unclear whether individuals named in such reports are adequately protected from false reports.

Neighbors as Spies: Public Reporting Through iWATCH

iWATCH, a civilian program launched by the LAPD in October 2009, supplements LAPD Special Order No. 11, which orders police officers to report suspicious behaviors that might be indicative of terrorism, including “taking pictures with no aesthetic value.”

“Law enforcement cannot be everywhere and see everything,” notes the LAPD’s blog, “iWATCH adds another tool to assist an agency’s predictive and analytical capability by educating community members about specific behaviors and activities that they should report.”

iWATCH was developed under the direction of LAPD Commander McNamara, and can be used in any community anywhere in the United States. Miami and Boston have similar See Something, Say Something campaigns. iWATCH lists nine types of suspicious behavior the public should look for, assuring tipsters, “this service is truly anonymous.” William Bratton described iWATCH as “the 21st century version of Neighborhood Watch.” In an NPR interview, Bratton provided this rationale:

Any street cop will tell you that crime prevention occurs best at the local level and terrorist-related crime prevention is no different. The problem has always been that individuals have varying thresholds at which they feel compelled to notify authorities when the activity is not overtly terrorist related. The iWATCH program is a giant leap toward overcoming this problem and literally provides millions of new eyes and ears in the terrorism prevention effort.

iWATCH, then, encourages the public to file a report even if people are not convinced that witnessed behavior is criminal. “Let the experts decide,” cajoles a Public Service Announcement.

In this interview, Former Chief Bratton appeared dismissive of concerns that iWATCH would invite racial profiling, saying, “No, I think we’re a more mature society than that.” (query: was the LAPD Rampart Division simple being immature when it generated one of the largest scandals involving documented police misconduct, including convictions of police officers for unprovoked shootings and beatings, planting of evidence, framing suspects, perjury, and subsequent cover-ups in the late 1990s?)

iWATCH is disturbingly similar to the controversial TIPS (Terrorist Information and Prevention System), an initiative created by the Bush administration to recruit one million volunteers in 10 cities across the country. TIPS encouraged volunteers to report suspicious activity that might be terrorism-related. TIPS came under intense criticism by various news media outlets in July 2002 for providing the United States with a higher percentage of citizen spies. According to an editorial in the Washington Post:

Americans should not be subjecting themselves to law enforcement scrutiny merely by having cable lines installed, mail delivered or meters read. Police cannot routinely enter people’s houses without either permission or a warrant. They should not be using utility workers to conduct surveillance they could not lawfully conduct themselves.

TIPS was officially canceled in 2002 when Congress enacted the Homeland Security Act. However, iWATCH seems to be virtually identical to the failed TIPS program. Residents and store owners should report incidents that demonstrate reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, such as purchasing large amounts of explosive chemicals. But the language of iWatch — encouraging untrained people to report vague occurrences that “just don’t seem right” — deserves to meet the same fate as TIPS.