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Questionable methods of passenger screening - observation & racial profiling

The Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques program screens passengers by observing their behaviour to detect potential high-risk travellers. The program’s Behaviour Detection Officers detect passenger behaviours indicative of stress, fear, or deception. Since the program’s inception in Fiscal Year 2007,  TSA data indicate that the program has expended an estimated $878 million and has more than 2,800 full-time equivalent positions, as of September 30, 2012. Despite the program’s growth, TSA has not implemented a strategic plan ensuring the program’s success.   The Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security (OIG) determined TSA did not:1. Assess the effectiveness of the Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques program; 2. Implement a comprehensive training program; 3. Contact its partners; or 4. Have financial plan. OIG determined that as a result, “TSA cannot ensure that passengers at United States airports are screened objectively, show that the program is cost-effective, or reasonably justify the program’s expansion.”

The report includes six recommendations to improve the effectiveness of the Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques program.  The report states that TSA agreed with the OIG recommendations to improve the program.  A redacted copy of the OIG report can be accessed here

Researchers in Israel interviewed a random sample of 918 passengers—308 Israeli Jews, 306 Palestinians who are Israeli citizens (Israeli Arabs), and 304 non-Israelis—post check-in, at Ben-Gurion Airport, in an effort to learn about the individual and social cost incurred by the Israeli Arabs going through the security process. The article discusses what was learned from the survey and draws some policy implications.

The researchers explained “The fact that ethnic profiling is efficient does not mean that it is socially desirable. Moral considerations must be taken into account.….Our survey provides empirical support for the expressive harm hypothesis suggested in the theoretical literature, According to this hypothesis, profiling minorities may result in significant equity costs as it reminds the targeted group members of the discrimination against them in other aspects of life.”  The full research report can be accessed here.