Very little is known about which types of people have been subjected to extra questioning under an experimental new passenger screening system at Logan Airport, and why they were singled out. So when 30 employees of the Transportation Security Administration recently claimed that members of minority groups were disproportionately likely to be referred to police, there was no statistical way judge the complaint. The TSA should launch a detailed study to determine whether the claims are true and, if so, whether the screening system is susceptible to bias.
The program, which the TSA has also deployed at one other airport in Michigan, is designed to identify travelers who may pose security risks, based on short interviews and a screener’s assessments of the passenger’s responses and mannerisms. The idea is to use behavioral tics to identify travelers who merit extra scrutiny, instead of relying on random chance or unscientific hunches.
But in practice, according to the 30 employees who lodged the complaint, black and Latino passengers were much more likely than whites to be referred to the State Police. The whistleblowers allege that screeners were under pressure to meet a monthly quota for referrals, and that some had resorted to crude stereotyping, pulling Latinos traveling to Miami and well-dressed black men out of line.
The TSA has promised a thorough investigation of the charges, as it should. The agency should also get rid of any quota systems in place. A referral is a serious matter for a traveler, potentially humiliating, definitely inconvenient; such a step should always be based on suspicious behavior, not because a screener needs to hit a target.
Gathering better statistics would serve the purpose of determining whether there is, in fact, rampant profiling, and identifying where problems may lie. But the act of simply collecting such data would put screeners on notice that profiling is not okay, and that it will be noticed. In Massachusetts, police departments have been required to keep statistics on the race of motorists they ticket since 2000; that system is far from perfect, but some credit it with lessening racial profiling simply by making the practice easier to spot.
The act of simply collecting such data would put screeners on notice that racial profiling is not okay.
One of the painful ironies of the allegations at Logan is that the screening system, if it works as designed, should actually lessen the risk of racial profiling. The training screeners receive is premised on the idea that behavioral hints can be giveaways, like tells at a poker table, no matter what a traveler’s race. Over time, it may turn out that the system doesn’t work. But the TSA is right to give it a try, and should take the needed steps to ensure the public has confidence that it’s being applied in a fair manner.