Fast Facts

TSA says that its screeners may refer passengers for additional screening if they exhibit behaviors that indicate stress, fear, or deception. Screeners are prohibited from picking passengers based on factors such as race or ethnicity.

We testified that TSA has guidance and checklists to monitor screeners’ use of behavior detection, but should better target unlawful profiling.

We recommended in a related report that TSA develop additional oversight specifically focused on monitoring behavior detection activities for compliance with policies that prohibit unlawful profiling.


Photo of people going through TSA screening

Photo of people going through TSA screening

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What GAO Found

Transportation Security Administration (TSA) policy requires managers to ensure behavior detection is conducted without regard to race or ethnicity, among other factors. TSA uses seven oversight checklists to assess whether behavior detection activities are conducted in accordance with TSA policy, such as monitoring whether screeners trained in behavior detection observe and engage passengers correctly. However, these checklists do not instruct supervisors to monitor for indications of profiling. TSA officials stated that the training screeners receive, adherence to operating procedures, and general supervisory oversight are sufficient to alert supervisors to situations when unlawful profiling may occur. However, developing a specific mechanism to monitor behavior detection activities for compliance with policies prohibiting unlawful profiling would provide TSA with greater assurance that screeners are adhering to such policies.

From October 2015 through February 2018, TSA received about 3,700 complaints alleging civil rights and civil liberties violations related to passenger screening. These complaints are not specific to behavior detection activities. The TSA Contact Center (TCC), the office that initially receives these complaints, reported that about half of the complaints did not have complete information from passengers necessary for further review, such as the airport and date of the incident. According to TCC officials, they attempt to obtain the additional information from passengers, but often the complaint does not include the correct contact information or the passenger does not respond to the TCC’s request for additional information. The TCC complaint data show that the remaining 51 percent (about 1,900) of complaints were referred to the TSA Multicultural Branch, the office responsible for reviewing complaints alleging civil rights and civil liberties violations. The Multicultural Branch reported reviewing 2,059 complaints, including approximately 1,900 complaints from TCC, as well as complaints referred from other TSA offices. For about half of the complaints (1,066) the Multicultural Branch reviewed, it found indications of potential discrimination and unprofessional conduct that involved race or other factors and recommended a range of refresher training across airports or for screeners at individual airports identified in the complaints.

TSA’s Multicultural Branch Reviewed 2,059 Complaints Alleging Violations of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties from October 2015 through February 2018

a Training is recommended when screening procedures are not followed or as a proactive measure.

Why GAO Did This Study

This testimony summarizes the information contained in GAO's April 2019 report, entitled Aviation Security: TSA Has Policies that Prohibit Unlawful Profiling But Should Improve Its Oversight of Behavior Detection Activities (GAO-19-268).

For questions about this statement, please contact William Russell at (202) 512-8777 or

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