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TSA Faces Allegations of Racial Profiling

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is investigating allegations of racial profiling at Boston Logan Airport. According to a report in The New York Times, more than 30 officers have issued written complaints charging that minorities were unfairly targeted for screening at the Beantown hub.


The complaining officers were working under a TSA test program called Expanded Behavior Detection. It’s an intelligence-based approach that, according to CBS News, mimics similar procedures in place at Israeli airports. One of the key components of this program is, as the name suggests, behavior detection: Officers are trained to spot and analyze suspicious conduct while interacting with passengers going through airport security. Says the TSA website:


“… specialized behavioral analysis techniques are used to determine if a traveler should be referred for additional screening at the checkpoint. The vast majority of passengers at the pilot checkpoints will experience a ‘casual greeting’ conversation with a Behavior Detection Officer (BDO) as they go through identity verification. This additional interaction is used by security agencies worldwide and enables officers to better verify or dispel suspicious behavior and anomalies.”


According to a story from The Huffington Post published last year (around the time when the program was first launched), suspicious behavior could mean anything from signs of nervousness (like excessive sweating) to an inconsistency in a story.


But that’s not how some TSA agents view the program. One officer told The Times, “They just pull aside anyone who they don’t like the way they look—if they are black and have expensive clothes or jewelry, or if they are Hispanic.”


A spokesperson from the TSA said that the Expanded Behavior Detection is not supposed to target passengers based on race. And the TSA claims to treat travelers the same regardless of appearance. But the large number of official complaints coming out of Logan gives a totally different message—one that the agency will have to account for. The Boston Globe reports that Congressman Bill Keating of Massachusetts has called for a congressional hearing on the matter.


In March, The TSA vowed to “move away from the one-size-fits-all approach” to airport security shortly before notoriously giving a pat-down to a toddler in a wheelchair in Chicago. This time, though, it appears the agency’s operations have swung terribly too far in the opposite direction.


Is it too much to ask for a security system that functions somewhere in the reasonable middle between terrorizing toddlers and targeting minorities? Share your thoughts in the comments.


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