Government report finds major flaws in TSA behavior detection program

Marlon Tejada, Randy Parsons
Is the Transportation Security Administration’s behavior detection program effective?

Not particularly, according to a report released this month by the Government Accountability Office, or GAO. The study examined the SPOT program, on which the TSA has spent more than $900 million since 2007. The goal, according to the study, is to use behavioral clues to spot the “bad guys.”

According to the GAO, in fiscal year 2012 there were 3,000 behavioral detection officers assigned to 176 airports. The job seems simple enough:

The SPOT program’s standard operating procedures state that BDOs are to observe and visually assess passengers, primarily at passenger screening checkpoints, and identify those who display clusters of behaviors indicative of stress, fear, or deception. The SPOT procedures list a point system BDOs are to use to identify potentially high-risk passengers on the basis of behavioral and appearance indicators, as compared with baseline conditions where SPOT is being conducted.

But according to the GAO, the behavioral detection program is likely deeply flawed. It seems as if the TSA has oversimplified what is actually a very complicated process.

“…Decades of peer-reviewed, published research on the complexities associated with detecting deception through human observation also draw into question the scientific underpinnings of TSA’s behavior detection activities,” the study’s author’s wrote.

And here, in the last paragraph of the conclusion on Page 47, comes the zinger:

“Consequently, after 10 years of implementing and testing the SPOT program, TSA cannot demonstrate that the agency’s behavior detection activities can reliably and effectively identify high-risk passengers who may pose a threat to the U.S. aviation system,” the authors wrote.

The study recommends the TSA administrator limit the funding for the program until “until TSA can provide scientifically validated evidence that demonstrates that behavioral indicators can be used to identify passengers who may pose a threat to aviation security.”

What do you think? Is it time to discontinue this program? Or can it be saved?

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