Over the next couple of holiday-filled months, students will travel more than they do all year. For many, this involves flying and the hassles that come with it in the name of national security. Though some are clearly necessary to keep passengers safe, others, such as the Travel Security Agency’s Screening of Passengers by Observation Technique program, have come under intense scrutiny for being ineffective, racist and expensive — and rightfully so.

According to a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the program — which has cost nearly $1 billion since its inception — trains and deploys more than 3,000 behavior detection officers to the nation’s busiest airports. There, they go undercover and attempt to identify suspicious-looking individuals who may pose a security threat. The TSA calls this a “common sense” approach to combating terrorism. But this model assumes that terrorists all look and behave in the same ways. The GAO found that these officers are only able to identify threats at a rate that is the “same as or slightly better than chance” — essentially calling the method’s usefulness into question.

Moreover, the report raises doubts about whether these superficial means can decide who looks questionable in an objective way. Largely perpetrated by the media, widespread bias about what terrorists look like means these so-called “objective” methods can lead to racial profiling. Because these officers are often undercover, there’s no way for victims of potential racial profiling to know for sure whether or not they have been targeted. So, while the TSA maintains that race and religion are never factors, we can’t be sure the agency’s behavior detection officers don’t put a greater burden on certain races or groups. In any case, the TSA’s willingness to tolerate possible racial profiling is unacceptable — even more so in the face of a program with a dubious success record.

Furthermore, some of the behaviors that tip off officers to possible terrorists include seeming stressed, rushed, nervous, or expressing an opinion of security processes. But the process itself tends to provoke these reactions. Under these rules, it doesn’t take more than a fear of flying, anxiety about missing a flight or dissatisfaction with the system to display so-called terrorist behavior.

Last spring, I was selected for further inspection at Detroit Metro Airport after making negative remarks about the x-ray scanners and having to take my shoes off. But this targeting doesn’t just target the outspoken. SPOT’s sole purpose is to systematically target individuals that stand out for a variety of reasons. Maybe they’re sweating too much. Maybe they’re too loud. Maybe they look tired. Regardless of their so-called physical symptoms of being a terrorist, singling out individuals who are most distressed by an inherently nerve-wracking security process is wrong and unhelpful.

While some of these officers are stationed at security checkpoints where travelers know they are being watched, many are not. Requirements for TSA officer identification are not uniform and vary across the country. Several airports do not require that these officers be stationed at security stations, or even be in a TSA uniform. In April, LAX removed the requirement to keep officers at security checkpoints at all times, so as to reduce the predictability of security measures. Instead, the officers are sent inside the airport, where travelers have no idea that they are being watched, or that the guy who randomly started talking to the them was an undercover agent. Domestic spying is illegal for other agencies such as the CIA, so why the TSA would be allowed to do it on a regular basis makes little sense.

SPOT is currently being reviewed by the House Committee of Homeland Security’s Subcommittee on Transportation Security, after behavior detection officers failed to spot a gunman who killed a TSA officer and wounded three others at LAX on Nov. 1, and after the GAO and Department of Homeland Security both publicly criticized the program. Both Democratic and Republican representatives have called for SPOT’s funding to be stripped. For the many travelers that have been putting up with BDO’s antics since the program began in 2007, it’s about time.

Victoria Noble is an LSA freshman.

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