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Wipe That Look Off Your Face

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November 24, 2009

Ever get that feeling that someone’s watching you? If you’re at the airport this holiday season, that might not be your spidey sense tingling—someone really might be watching you. Specifically, the “behavior detection officers” of the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) Screening Passengers by Observational Techniques (SPOT) team. According to AlterNet’s Liliana Segura, these specially trained TSA employees are trained to “weed out potential hijackers among us, by covertly examining travelers’ facial expressions and body language as they go through security.”

The $3.1 million program is deployed at 161 airports, and has more than 3,000 SPOT-ters. Segura reports that in 2008, “98,805 passengers [were pulled] aside for additional screenings, out of which 9,854 were questioned by local police. 813 were eventually arrested.”

So you might be thinking: “813 arrests. That’s good.” But what about those 98,000 people who were pulled aside and subjected to extra questioning? Sounds like a needle in the haystack scenario to us. If the police stopped 98,000 people on the streets of Omaha or anywhere else, they might also make 813 arrests. But the police can’t do that of course, because Americans are protected by the Fourth Amendment, which normally bars the authorities from doing searches without probable cause. The government has a limited exemption to perform “administrative searches” at airports only for the specific purpose of protecting the safety of aviation. But airports are not supposed to be general law enforcement checkpoints.

The other question to ask is: so how many of those 813 arrests had anything to do with threats to aviation? That’s the measure of the program’s success, not the number of raw arrests. When presented with the chance to tout their successes in the Washington Post recently, officials apparently couldn’t cite anything other than some arrests for drugs and fake IDs.

As our own Jay Stanley told Segura:

The problem with the SPOT program is that it is based on trying to stop terrorism by searching for supposed ‘signs of terrorism’ that are so commonplace that it results in an increase in the monitoring of individuals to no good end.

[…]Real life is not like in a spy thriller where people can magically perceive the people who have something to hide. When people are asked to detect wrongdoing based on overbroad signs, the usual result is racial profiling.

Also, you can’t dismiss this very salient fact: who isn’t a bit uneasy at the airport? Between the virtual strip-search machines, bagging your liquids and taking off your shoes, “people have a million reasons to be nervous or anxious. In fact, if you’re in today’s airports and you’re not a little crazed there’s almost something wrong with you,” Jay says.

So, our tips for traveling over the holidays: Don’t fidget. Don’t look down. Don’t pat your chest. Don’t stand out. Fit in. Oh, and don’t be Indian. Or Muslim. Just don’t be brown.

Got that?