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ACLU Objects To TF Green Airport Participation In Homeland Security ‘Behavior Detection’ Experiment

Posted: August 17, 2015|Category: Discrimination Category: Privacy

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The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island today raised deep concerns about a decision by T.F. Green Airport officials to participate in a Department of Homeland Security field test designed to expand a largely discredited “behavior detection” program that attempts to determine travelers’ motives of “mal-intent” by monitoring their mundane actions.

The current program, run by the Transportation and Safety Administration (TSA), uses thousands of “behavior detection officers” in airports across the country. The field test, known as “Centralized Hostile Intent,” will use actors to mimic certain behaviors in the screening areas of T.F. Green Airport in order to test whether TSA officials can identify “behavioral indicators of malicious intent” by monitoring live video feed in remote locations rather than through in-person observation. In a letter sent to R.I. Airport Corporation president Kelly J. Fredericks, ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown said that “Rhode Island should have no part in lending credibility” to a project whose goal is to expand the discredited program and “make it easier and more routine to target innocent travelers for intrusive incursions on their privacy.”

According to a document leaked earlier this year, the signs that airport “behavior detection” officers currently look for – signs described in the ACLU’s letter as being “hopelessly common and meaningless” – include being late for a flight, excessive clock-watching, rubbing hands, “exaggerated yawning,” gazing down, strong body odor and sweaty palms.

“It’s difficult to imagine how this experiment, using actors to mimic questionable behaviors suggesting possible ‘mal-intent,’ can provide any meaningful information beyond how skillful the subjects are as actors. Presumably TSA has concluded that the inability of remote operators to determine whether a person has ‘strong body odor’ or sweaty palms will not unfairly skew the results,” Brown stated in the letter.

Brown noted that the TSA’s behavior monitoring activities have been widely criticized by scientists, politicians, and privacy advocates as flawed and wasteful. A 2013 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office recommended the TSA limit funding for behavior detection activities after it found no “scientifically validated evidence for using behavioral indicators” and that “the human ability to accurately identify deceptive behavior based on behavioral indicators is the same as or slightly better than chance.” In addition, in 2012, more than 30 participating Logan Airport officers said the program had “become a magnet for racial profiling.”

Despite these findings, the program being tested in Rhode Island seeks to expand the use of “behavior detection” through remote monitoring, and also to develop a tracking algorithm so officers can follow on-camera any individual they deem suspicious throughout the airport, and identify and track others with them as well.

Since the field test is using actors, the ACLU acknowledged that the privacy intrusions generated by this particular experiment will be minimal. But the letter emphasized that it was impossible to ignore the “ultimate goal” of the project: to “make it easier and more routine to target innocent travelers for intrusive incursions on their privacy.” 

“The anticipated future applications of this project are disturbing, as they promise to be just as ineffective as TSA’s existing efforts. At bottom, this effort is junk science, but one with serious civil liberties and privacy implications,” Brown stated. “We all want to ensure proper security measures are in place at our airports, but it is time to end, not expand, ineffective programs like this that use up limited resources, and that open the door to more intrusive privacy invasions and increased racial profiling, while doing little to keep us safe.”

The ACLU learned of the field test only when a TSA “privacy impact assessment” was disclosed in June. An open records request from the ACLU disclosed that RIAC approved participation in the experiment after discussing it in a closed meeting at the end of that month.

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