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End the Screening Passengers by Observations Techniques Program

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The Screening Passengers by Observations Techniques Program (SPOT) is a discriminatory surveillance program implemented by the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) at airports across the United States. It uses the pseudoscientific practice of behavioral profiling in an attempt to gauge the threat level of various passengers. This program is not only an ineffective waste of over a billion dollars, but it functionally gives TSA officers a green light to detain anyone they deem suspicious. This has resulted in a wave of anti-Muslim discrimination throughout airports which needs to end. 

The SPOT program functions through the use of BDOs. Each BDO is trained to profiling passengers in an airport setting on a roughly 90-point checklist, assigning points to passengers who display certain traits or actions that make them more suspicious than regular passengers. Once a passenger has accumulated a certain number of points, the BDO pulls aside the passenger to subject them to additional screenings in the form of pat-downs, questioning, or any other screening tactic employed by the TSA. These passengers are subject to this profiling as they are passing through security, and the BDOs are scattered throughout the airport, typically under disguise. 

Many criticize the SPOT program for being an ineffective counterterrorism tool and consequently a waste of federal resources. Behavioral profiling experts have decried the SPOT program for misusing the practice of behavioral profiling. Experts have stated that behavioral profiling works best when used in a law enforcement setting when officers have long periods of time to observe and analyze the behavioral tendencies and cues of specific individuals. It is ineffective, however, in an airport setting, where officers only get a maximum of thirty seconds to analyze passengers. Additionally, experts have criticized the metrics that SPOT uses to make judgements on the relative suspicion level of airport passengers. The 90-item checklist that the program uses indicators such as arriving late for a flight, arriving early from a flight, trembling, having a bobbing Adams apple, and other ludicrous items that nearly every passenger qualifies for given the stressful nature of travel in the United States. This means that nearly every passenger would theoretically set off red flags under the SPOT system and be eligible to be pulled aside for further questioning. This forces TSA officials to be over reliant on their preexisting biases when determining which individuals to question causing Muslims to be the ones predominantly chosen for such questioning. The SPOT program therefore functionally gives TSA officials the green light to pull aside whoever they want. Since these arbitrary detentions don’t rest on any sort of objective standard for suspicion, and since the SPOT program itself caught a single potential terrorist, experts are deeply critical of the program and instead advocate for the federal resources and agents that are currently employed by the program to be utilized in some other capacity.

Many Muslims have shared stories about racial prejudice within airports since 9/11. These incidents include being forced to remove religious garments, being singled out for special screening, being barred from flights to the United States, being asked intrusive questions about their religion, and more. SPOT has drawn numerous allegations of racial profiling and criticisms from civil rights advocacy groups and individuals. Experts say that the unique and stressful aspect of an airport setting make the snap judgements that agents are forced to make suspect to overreliance on preexisting biases thus resulting in an ineffective and discriminatory policy.

A removal of the SPOT program is desperately needed and will ensure a more egalitarian and effective airport security presence long into the future.

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