ACLU sues for airport 'behavior detection' program records

Friday, March 20, 2015, Vol. 39, No. 12

NEW YORK (AP) — A civil rights group sued the federal government Thursday to try to force it to turn over information about airport "behavior detection" programs designed to spot passengers who are potential threats, saying they lead to discrimination.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed the Freedom of Information Act lawsuit in Manhattan federal court, asking a judge to force the Transportation Security Administration to divulge how it runs the programs and the results they have achieved since they began in 2003.

Jennifer Queliz, a spokeswoman for government lawyers, said there was no immediate comment on the lawsuit.

The lawsuit said more information needs to be known about the Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques program, also known as SPOT, as its techniques are criticized by government auditors, members of Congress and experts. It said the government has spent more than $1 billion on that program alone since 2007.

"What we know about SPOT suggests it's a waste of taxpayer money, leads to racial profiling, and should be scrapped," ACLU staff attorney Hugh Handeyside said in a news release.

He said government secrecy about documents related to the program "can't hide the fact that there's no evidence the program works."

According to the lawsuit, the TSA trains and deploys "behavior detection officers" at airports to watch passengers in screening areas for behaviors that the government associates with stress, fear or deception. The behaviors can lead to secondary inspection and questioning and eventually to a law enforcement probe.

The ACLU said the Government Accountability Office and an independent scientific advisory group concluded there was no evidence that observing the behavior of people can isolate those who are deceptive. It said a report by the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general also could find no evidence the program worked.

Meanwhile, it said, complaints that additional questions and screening are unfairly falling on people of Middle Eastern descent, blacks, Hispanics and other minorities have arisen at several airports, including in Boston, Honolulu and Newark, New Jersey.

The ACLU said it submitted its FOIA request for records in October but has not yet received anything from the government.