Loss of Privacy

Keeping you informed on recent losses to privacy and civil rights worldwide.

Browsing Posts tagged SPOT

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Numerous agencies and privacy advocated have shown that, since its inception, SPOT and its BDOs isn’t useful at all, yet the government keeps throwing money at it. A new report from the DHS Inspector General concludes that it is utterly useless and a waste of taxpayer money. After hiring 2,800 full-time staff and spending an estimated $878 million since FY 2007, the TSA SPOT program still doesn’t work.

SPOT (which stands for Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques) is the program that places “Behavior Detection Officers” (BDOs) near airport security lines, where by intrusively chatting with fliers, they will supposedly be able to detect “something amiss” that might suggest a passenger is planning a terrorist attack.

At root, the core problem with this program (leaving aside legal objections) is the same as the core problem with polygraphs and other “lie detection” schemes: the relationship between an individual’s internal state of mind, and their external physical behavior or signs, is simply not a consistent or reliable one.

…because the SPOT program is based on searching for supposed “signs of terrorism” that are vague and commonplace (while terrorism is anything but commonplace), officers can basically pick anyone they want for extra screening. Surprise, surprise, that often devolves into crude racial profiling…

We saw this happen at Boston, Newark, and Honolulu’s airports.

Criticisms in the report include:

TSA cannot ensure that passengers at U.S. airports are screened objectively, show that the program is cost-effective, or reasonably justify the program’s expansion.

TSA cannot demonstrate that BDOs are screening passengers in a uniform manner to identify potentially high-risk individuals.

The program collects data from referral reports that provide measurable outputs of specific activities. However, these outputs do not provide a measure of program effectiveness, because TSA has not established why these outputs support desired outcomes. For example, TSA documents the identification of prohibited items, undeclared currency, and illegal aliens, but the SPOT program has not defined how these outputs support achieving the SPOT program goals.

Basically, the TSA SPOT program is not cost-effective, can’t screen everyone in the same objective manner, and cannot pick out high-risk individuals. Though it may have identified prohibited items, undeclared currency, and illegal aliens, that isn’t what their mandate is supposed to be. It’s supposed to be catching terrorists, something the TSA has never done.

The IG also reported confused relations between the SPOT program and the law enforcement officers (LEOs) that the BDOs (not being sworn officers themselves) call in when. . . well, we’re not really sure when. Law enforcement officers at some airports “said that they had not received clear information about BDO duties and why referrals from BDOs warranted law enforcement response.” The TSA reported that officers “did not question approximately 13 percent of referred passengers.” One wonders if this is a sign of eye-rolling exasperation on the part of the police officers. We do know that law enforcement “referrals” appear to be wildly inconsistent, with TSA data indicating just 430 referrals from Chicago’s giant O’Hare airport in a recent 16-month period, for example, yet 6,981 at the smaller airport in Orlando, Florida.

A 2010 Government Accountability Office study similarly found the SPOT program had no scientific basis, wasn’t subject to independent expert review and had not undergone cost/benefit analysis, so the latest findings are not a surprise. The new report was ordered by Rep. Bennie Thompson (D, Miss.), who had previously tried to add an amendment defunding the program to Homeland Security appropriations legislation, but it was not adopted. Let’s hope the latest findings will lead to an end to this misguided program.

This horrendous, and useless, program needs to be defunded and demolished. Rep. Thompson should try again because all the SPOT program does is waste taxpayer money. It doesn’t actually do anything else.

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From its inception, skeptics have claimed that the Behavior Detection System touted by the DHS was useless and impossible to implement. Now, as many have suspected, it is not being used to detect suspicious behavior but as a means to justify racial profiling at some of the nation’s airports. The biggest problem, is seems, is at Boston’s Logan Airport where Blacks, Hispanics, Middle Easterners and other minorities are regularly stopped for extra screening.

In interviews and internal complaints, officers from the Transportation Security Administration’s “behavior detection” program at Logan International Airport in Boston asserted that passengers who fit certain profiles — Hispanics traveling to Miami, for instance, or blacks wearing baseball caps backward — are much more likely to be stopped, searched and questioned for “suspicious” behavior.

“They just pull aside anyone who they don’t like the way they look — if they are black and have expensive clothes or jewelry, or if they are Hispanic,” said one white officer, who along with four others spoke with The New York Times on the condition of anonymity.

At a meeting last month with T.S.A. officials, officers at Logan provided written complaints about profiling from 32 officers, some of whom wrote anonymously. Officers said managers’ demands for high numbers of stops, searches and criminal referrals had led co-workers to target minorities in the belief that those stops were more likely to yield drugs, outstanding arrest warrants or immigration problems.

The practice has become so prevalent, some officers said, that Massachusetts State Police officials have asked why minority members appear to make up an overwhelming number of the cases that the airport refers to them.

“The behavior detection program is no longer a behavior-based program, but it is a racial profiling program,” one officer wrote in an anonymous complaint obtained by The Times.

The Behavior Detection Program was supposed to catch those who act suspiciously as a means to fight terrorism. Instead, it’s become a program that harasses minorities in an effort to catch what usually turns out to be minor legal problems. It has proven itself to be another line of security theater that wasn’t meant to stop terrorism. It’s a program that placates the public while continuing to profile people based on stereotypes.

The officers identified nearly two dozen co-workers who they said consistently focused on stopping minority members in response to pressure from managers to meet certain threshold numbers for referrals to the State Police, federal immigration officials or other agencies.

The stops were seen as a way of padding the program’s numbers and demonstrating to Washington policy makers that the behavior program was producing results, several officers said.

Instead, the officers said, profiling undermined the usefulness of the program. Focusing on minority members, said a second officer who was interviewed by The Times, “takes officers away from the real threat, and we could miss a terrorist we are looking for.”

The TSA’s mandate is to find bombs and terrorist plots. If that’s what they are there to do, then that’s what they should be doing. Instead, they find use any measure they want to make themselves look good, including breaking the law.

That is what happened last month at Logan airport to Kenneth Boatner, 68, a psychologist and educational consultant in Boston who was traveling to Atlanta for a business trip.

In a formal complaint he filed with the agency afterward, he said he was pulled out of line and detained for 29 minutes as agents thumbed through his checkbook and examined his clients’ clinical notes, his cellphone and other belongings.

While it is questionable as to whether the TSA can randomly thumb through someone’s cell phone and checkbook, it is certainly illegal to examine, in any way, clinical notes that are confidential. If they really suspected Boatner, they should have taken him to a private room and obtained the proper paperwork in order to search through his personal and confidential information and paperwork.

“Thus, because TSA screeners are limited to the single administrative goal of searching for possible safety threats related to explosives, the constitutional bounds of an airport administrative search require that the individual screener’s actions be no more intrusive than necessary to determine the existence or absence of explosives that could result in harm to the passengers and aircraft.” Id. at 831 (citing $124,570 U.S. Currency, 873 F.2d at 1245).

If the TSA employees do not even understand what their mandate is or how to properly execute it, how are they to be taught to not racially profile passengers? The TSA doe not keep records, at least at Logan Airport, of the racial makeup of the passengers that they do stop and are, thus, hiding behind the fact that they have to statistics to back up complaints. They have, as usual, assured the public that, if they find evidence of racial profiling, they will deal with it accordingly.
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The TSA has spent $1 billion on its flawed SPOT program, which was designed to catch terrorists strictly by watching their behavior. It doesn’t work, has never worked, and never will work, but the government has seen fit to spend a billion dollars on it. Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques has been a failure from the start and it’s finally coming under fire.

But the record of these behavior-detection officers is disappointing, to say the least: not a single terrorist nabbed. In fact, 16 passengers allegedly tied to terror plots passed 23 times through airports — and not one was picked out of the crowd.

And a federal watchdog agency, the Government Accountability Office, is warning that SPOT’s miserable record probably won’t get any better, at least any time soon. At a hearing on Capitol Hill last month, the GAO’s Stephen Lord told lawmakers that the TSA has not completely validated the science behind SPOT — or proved that it works in an airport environment — even though the program’s budget has grown 15 percent in five years, from $198 million in fiscal 2009 to a requested $227 million in fiscal 2013.

“Skip the humans, spend the money on canines. They are more effective, better trained, don’t feel the need to unionize and you can still keep the same name ‘SPOT,’ ”  said Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., a member of the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security who is often critical of the TSA.

Canines are far better at spotting and detecting than any human will ever be. They have proven their worth thousands of times over, yet the government seems convinced that a human can do it better. The fact that more than a decade has passed and humans have failed at any behavior detection should be all the evidence needed to end the program now.

In the scientific community, there is real doubt that “micro-expressions” reveal much about someone’s desire to deceive — let alone smuggle a bomb on board. Another psychologist contends 50 years of research simply don’t support the premise that even a behavior-detection officer can tell a liar from a truth-teller.

Then there are security experts like Bruce Schneier, who sees SPOT as nothing but a big show to fool the public into feeling safer.

“The behavioral detection program is zero percent effective at preventing terrorism,” Schneier wrote on his blog after the GAO released its report. “The TSA refuses to back down on any of its security theater measures. At the same time, its budget is being cut and more people are flying. The result: longer waiting times at security.”

With all the scientific evidence pointing against the SPOT program from working, the government has decided that, not only will they continue using the program, they plan on expanding it.

A pilot program at airports in Boston and Detroit has behavior-detection officers engage in conversation with passengers, asking them a few casual questions to sniff out shady behavior.

“The deterrent value of the program can’t be overstated,” TSA spokeswoman Ann Davis said. “SPOT adds another layer of security to the airport environment and presents the terrorists with yet one more challenge they need to overcome in attempt to defeat our security system.”

There is no deterrent value to the SPOT program. It doesn’t work. The TSA needs to admit it and stop using it. It doesn’t add anything to the security of the airport. The facts stand for themselves. 16 passengers tied to terrorism passed through this program 23 times and were never stopped. It is incredulous that the TSA can claim that SPOT works when the mounting evidence is clear that it doesn’t.

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The US government is determined to introduce their SPOT program on August 15 at Boston’s Logan International airport, yet it is doomed to fail because it still hasn’t made improvements since it was first introduced. The SPOT program will utilize what are known as Behavior Detection Officers. These BDOs will have 13 days of training before using their new skills on the general public.

The program has come under intense scrutiny as far back as 2007. Critics continue to voice their concerns.

It requires screeners to make quick reads of whether passengers pose a danger or a terror threat based on their reactions to a set of routine questions.

“I’m not convinced that the TSA has good enough people to make the Israeli approach work on a large scale,” said Glenn Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor who has followed the TSA at his blog, Instapundit.com.

But he noted, “Almost anything would be an improvement over the clown show we’ve got now.”

“It’s an ineffective waste of taxpayer dollars that has the potential and the reality of leading to profiling based on race and ethnicity,” said Massachusetts ACLU executive director Carol Rose, who dismissed SPOT as “security theater.”

There are also numerous concerns about the types of questions being asked.

Under the SPOT program, as passengers hand over their boarding passes and identification, specially trained agents will ask three to four questions — from “Where have you been?” to “Do you have a business card?” and “Where are you traveling?” — while looking for “micro expressions,” such as lack of eye contact, that might hint at nefarious intent.

Suspicious individuals will be pulled aside for more questioning, full-body scans and pat-downs. If the encounter escalates, agents will call in state police.

What is the point of asking, “Where have you been?” when you are an American who is boarding a plane to fly somewhere? If they are only going to ask this of foreigners, then they are omitting a large section of the public who might have done something and are fleeing the country. This is simple profiling.

Asking if someone has a business card is stupid. It doesn’t accomplish anything. Anyone can make business cards. By the time the TSA checks to see if it’s real, the person is long gone. You can also answer, “Yeah, I do, but I’m on vacation and didn’t bring them with me.”

Why ask where you are traveling? That is an asinine question. Not only is it written on the boarding pass, but, even if the person were some sort of terrorist, they’re not going to flub this question.

Numerous people are going to be needlessly pulled for extra security because behavior detection doesn’t work on such a large scale. There are far too many variables to make it viable and the TSA workers will never have enough training to learn to use it properly or effectively.

Here are a few of the people who will end up being pulled aside for further screening due to these new methods.

People with social anxieties and who are just nervous nellies in every day life. These include, people who don’t like others in their personal space, stammerers, stutterers, and quiet, shy, and/or socially awkward people.

People who don’t normally look other people in the eye. In some cultures, this is a sign of confrontation and something never done.
People who have just gotten off a 19 hour flight and have no idea what time it really is anymore. They tend to walk around for a while in a daze until they adjust to their new environment.

People who generally think that they don’t have to answer such questions. If this is such a free country, why does anyone have to document where they’ve been on a vacation? A person may simply be trying to argue this point. The TSA will see it as a threat.

At Logan, about 70 agents — all with college degrees — are undergoing training by an international consulting firm that includes a four-day classroom course and 24 hours of on-the-job experience, said TSA spokeswoman Ann Davis.

Having a college degree does not guarantee smarter people conducting these searches nor does it guarantee that the TSA agent will automatically grasp the task at hand. This course will barely cover the basics of what is expected. What you can expect is more false positives, more security theater, and more of a mess at the airports.


Lie to Me
was a fictional television show. It doesn’t work this way in real life. The Behavior Detection program is simply another means of government harassment. Without proper training, these BDOs will continue to stopping children, old men with ostomy bags, and little old grandmas who aren’t remotely a threat. It won’t work as it should and we’ll still see knives and guns getting past security.

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In what should come as no surprise, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has said that the Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program has no scientific proof [pdf] that it actually works.

The SPOT program utilizes behavior observation and analysis techniques to identify potentially high-risk passengers. GAO analysts provided Congress with information on the extent to which TSA has validated the scientific basis for SPOT and other operational challenges.

“Years after implementing a costly passenger screening program, the Homeland Security agency responsible for protecting the nation’s transportation system failed to detect terrorists at U.S. airports on nearly two dozen occasions,” according to Tom Fitton, President of Judicial Watch.

As a result the terrorists slipped right through “security” checkpoints and boarded commercial airplanes, according to the GAO report that’s difficult to swallow nearly a decade after the worst terrorist attacks in U.S. history.

In 2010 SPOT cost taxpayers nearly $212 million and the Obama Administration wants $232 million for it this year.

But on at least 23 occasions its highly specialized Behavior Detection Officers failed to stop terrorists from boarding planes, investigators found. At least 16 people who were later charged or pleaded guilty to terrorism charges slipped through eight different U.S. airports with SPOT programs, according to the GAO’s findings.

Anyone with a basic education could have seen that such a program was not going to work. There are far too many variables that cannot be taken into account in every single instance of a passenger walking through the airport.

The DHS has agreed to an independent panel that is currently reviewing the viability of the SPOT program.

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