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Saturday, September 23, 2023

GAO: TSA Should Better Target Unlawful Profiling

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has testified that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has guidance and checklists to monitor screeners’ use of behavior detection, but that it should better target unlawful profiling.

TSA screeners may refer passengers for additional screening if they exhibit behaviors that indicate stress, fear, or deception. Screeners are prohibited from picking passengers based on factors such as race or ethnicity.

In August 2017, TSA began training screeners on its new behavioral indicators. TSA revised the behavioral indicators by eliminating and combining some of the indicators used to observe passenger behavior, which TSA refers to as Optimized Behavior Detection. According to TSA officials, Optimized Behavior Detection includes 36 revised behavioural indicators—which TSA pared down from a list of 96 indicators. Screeners must be trained in passenger and accessible property screening before they are eligible to attend Optimized Behavior Detection training.

The 2018 National Training Plan required behavior detection–trained screeners to complete four recurrent technical training courses related to behavior detection, including two that contain material reinforcing DHS’s and TSA’s policies prohibiting unlawful profiling.

As of January 2019, TSA officials told GAO that out of the approximately 43,000 screeners nationwide, a total of 2,541 screeners had been trained at 117 airports in Optimized Behavior Detection.

GAO has found that TSA uses seven oversight checklists to assess whether behavior detection activities are conducted in accordance with TSA policy, such as monitoring whether screeners trained in behavior detection observe and engage passengers correctly. However, these checklists do not instruct supervisors to monitor for indications of profiling.

From October 2015 through February 2018, TSA received nearly 3,700 complaints alleging civil rights and civil liberties violations related to passenger screening. These complaints are not specific to behavior detection activities. The TSA Contact Center (TCC), the office that initially receives these complaints, reported that about half of the complaints did not have complete information from passengers necessary for further review, such as the airport and date of the incident. According to TCC officials, they attempt to obtain the additional information from passengers, but often the complaint does not include the correct contact information or the passenger does not respond to the TCC’s request for additional information. The TCC complaint data show that the remaining 51 percent (about 1,900) of complaints were referred to the TSA Multicultural Branch, the office responsible for reviewing complaints alleging civil rights and civil liberties violations. The Multicultural Branch reported reviewing 2,059 complaints, including approximately 1,900 complaints from TCC, as well as complaints referred from other TSA offices. For about half of the complaints (1,066) the Multicultural Branch reviewed, it found indications of potential discrimination and unprofessional conduct that involved race or other factors and recommended a range of refresher training across airports or for screeners at individual airports identified in the complaints.

TSA officials said they plan to update the behavior detection and checkpoint screening policies, procedures, and guidance during fiscal year 2019. As a part of this update, TSA officials told GAO they plan to include language in the standard operating procedures reinforcing the use of behavior detection simultaneously with other checkpoint duties, such as the document checker position.

However, TSA officials also told GAO they are not planning to add an oversight mechanism specific to profiling as part of the updates because they believe screener training, adherence to the standard operating procedures, and general supervisory oversight are sufficient.

GAO has recommended that TSA develop a specific oversight mechanism to monitor the use of behavior detection activities for compliance with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and TSA policies that prohibit unlawful profiling. DHS concurred and said TSA plans to take additional steps to continue to ensure behavior detection activities adhere to polices that prohibit unlawful profiling. TSA plans to modify existing oversight checklists used by managers and supervisors to include specific terminology for monitoring unlawful profiling. DHS estimates that this effort will be complete by September 30, 2019.

Read the full report at GAO

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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