Looking nervous? Yawning too much? TSA may be keeping an eye on you.

Details about TSA’s program to detect suspicious air travelers have been revealed by the online publication The Intercept. Critics say it’s unreliable and can lead to racial and religious profiling.

Nola.com/Michael DeMocker/AP
Fliers await word of their departures in the ticketing area of Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans after a machete-wielding man was shot by a TSA employee on March 20, 2015.

At airports around the country, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents are screening passengers and their stuff.

Looking through luggage this past week, they came upon the typical illegal arsenal: 53 firearms (44 of which were loaded and 24 with rounds chambered), filled ammunition clips, a live smoke grenade, stun guns, and a variety of large knives, one of them concealed inside a belt buckle. TSA doesn’t regularly report such encounters, but the week also likely included a number of passengers pulled aside for questioning and perhaps extra physical checking.

Now, the reasons for that extra questioning have been revealed by The Intercept, the online publication that first went public with the documents provided by ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

As they scan passengers, TSA “behavioral detection officers” look for “stress factors,” “fear factors,” and “deception factors.”

“The checklist ranges from the mind-numbingly obvious, like ‘appears to be in disguise’ … to the downright dubious, like a bobbing Adam’s apple,” The Intercept reports. “Many indicators, like ‘trembling’ and ‘arriving late for flight,’ appear to confirm allegations that the program picks out signs and emotions that are common to many people who fly.”

The 92-point checklist includes body odor, exaggerated yawning, excessive throat clearing, widely open staring eyes, exaggerated or excessive grooming gestures, a face pale from the recent shaving of one’s beard, rubbing or wringing of hands, and an “obvious ‘Adam’s Apple’ jump” when asked to go through screening procedures.”
 

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has sued TSA under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for documents related to the SPOT program.

“The TSA's use of such techniques raises serious civil liberties concerns about racial and religious profiling and has been criticized as ineffective and lacking a valid scientific basis,” the ACLU says in its FOIA request.

“The Government Accountability Office and independent scientific advisory groups have concluded that there's just no evidence that humans can reliably detect deception or ill intent in others based on their behavior,” ACLU attorney Hugh Handeyside told NPR. “The program has led to numerous allegations of racial and religious profiling, which isn't surprising given that you're basically giving TSA officers permission to make hasty, gut-level judgments about people's intentions based on nothing more than their facial expressions or their behavior.”

University of Chicago behavioral scientist Nicholas Epley is skeptical as well.

“The data that comes from experiments that test whether people can detect these subtle kinds of cues suggest that it can't be detected very well,” Dr. Epley said on NPR. “There are certainly lots of claims about how body language can be read better if you're trained, but a lot of those kinds of claims come without data to back them up.”

For its part, TSA is standing by its SPOT program as a necessary part of airport and air travel security.

“Behavior detection, which is just one element of the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) efforts to mitigate threats against the traveling public, is vital to TSA’s layered approach to deter, detect and disrupt individuals who pose a threat to aviation,” an agency spokesman said in a statement to The Intercept. “No single behavior alone will cause a traveler to be referred to additional screening or will result in a call to a law enforcement officer.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.