ACLU sues TSA over controversial passenger screening program News
ACLU sues TSA over controversial passenger screening program

[JURIST] The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the New York Civil Liberties Union [advocacy websites] filed [complaint, PDF] a lawsuit in federal court on Thursday in an effort to obtain documents from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) [official website] regarding their behavior detection program used in airports across the country to spot suspect travelers. TSA officers trained in behavior detection observe the behavior of airport passengers, screening for specific behaviors that the TSA associates with stress, fear or deception. When a passenger is flagged for exhibiting signs of such behavior, that passenger is subject to questioning and possibly detention or arrest. The ACLU, members of Congress, the government and independent experts have criticized the program, Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT), for being ineffective, unscientific and wasteful. The program has reportedly cost taxpayers $1 billion since 2007 and has given rise to allegations of racial profiling. Passengers, as well as behavior detection officers, have complained that the process subjects people of Middle Eastern descent or appearance, African Americans, Hispanics or other minorities to further questioning or detention solely on the basis of race. The ACLU has submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) [official website] request for TSA records related to any scientific basis for the program, its effectiveness or how often minorities are singled out.

Racial profiling by police and national security officers is an ongoing problem. In December government officials announced new rules intended to decrease racial profiling [JURIST report]. These rules, to be released by the Justice Department as an expansion of anti-profiling laws passed in 2003, are expected to impact federal law enforcement agencies by banning racial profiling for national security cases. In opening cases federal agents are expected to be prohibited from considering factors such as race, religion, sexual orientation and national origin. These new laws, however, will not be binding on local law enforcement or portions of the Department of Homeland Security, such as the TSA. In November the Utah Attorney General’s Office reached a settlement with the ACLU over a controversial immigration law, striking several provisions of the law [JURIST report] that many advocacy groups argued perpetuated racial profiling. Last year the ACLU accused [press release] governmental surveillance centers of invasion of privacy and reliance on racial and religious profiling in their Suspicious Activity Reports, urging [letter, PDF] the centers to adopt stricter standards of reporting [JURIST report].