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What is SPOT?

SPOT is used at airports to identify travelers who might be problematic.
SPOT critics say it is like "facecrime" described in the novel "1984."
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  • Written By: Sherry Holetzky
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Images By: James Steidl, Miranda Celeste Hale
  • Last Modified Date: 05 August 2014
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Government agencies frequently use acronyms to name various programs. SPOT is an acronym for Screening Passengers by Observation Technique, a program used in airports and such to watch travelers for signs of stress. There are a number of signs that are believed to indicate a person could be dangerous or could cause trouble.

The SPOT program was ostensibly created to help prevent terrorism, but has been used against citizens for regular criminal activity, including failure to pay child support. Some feel that the SPOT program is a good and necessary tool. Some even offer the argument that no one should mind being watched if he or she has nothing to hide. Others feel that such an argument is repugnant in a country built upon personal freedom and restraint of government power. There are many arguments both for and against the SPOT program.

The SPOT program uses “behavior detection officers” who are trained to look for psychological signs of stress. Profuse sweating, restlessness, contortion of facial features, and other signs can be indicators that a person is experiencing stress or fear. It’s not difficult to imagine people appearing fearful — due to fear of flying — or appearing stressed as they hurry to catch their flights, as some have countered. On the other hand, although psychology is not a hard science, it can sometimes be helpful in predicting and perhaps even preventing violent behavior.

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Some believe that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) should be seeking out potential terrorists rather than people who are behind on their child support payments or looking for other common criminals. There is an extensive criminal justice system already in place for regular criminal activity, and it offers Constitutional protections. Unfortunately, when used as a regular law enforcement tool, SPOT may sidestep such protections.

The Constitution, specifically the Fourth Amendment, clearly outlines in which instances a person or his belongings may be searched or seized. Opponants of SPOT point out that nowhere within that Amendment is there a justification for detaining a person, for searching him or his belongings because his facial features indicate stress, which is what SPOT does. They say that it smacks of “facecrime” as described by George Orwell in his famous book 1984. It also leads to questions regarding the constitutionality of the SPOT program when used on American citizens. The courts will likely be asked to address this issue.

There is often a fine line between security and liberty. Programs such as SPOT may be useful to some degree but many feel that they must also be scrutinized carefully to ensure that the rights of citizens are not violated in the name of security. It has been pointed out that if the program is intended to fight terrorism, then that is the way it should be used. It would be a tragedy if a terrorist made it onto a plane while behavior detection officers were busy tracking a nervous pickpocket.

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