The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report Wednesday that concludes the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) should curb its policy of profiling air passengers’ behavior as a means of discovering potential terror threats, because the practice just isn’t working.
GAO investigators advised the TSA to curb the practice unless the agency modifies its methods and can demonstrate that some form of behavioral profiling of passengers can succeed at foiling terrorism.
The report to Congress, titled “TSA Should Limit Future Funding for Behavioral Detection Activities,” takes direct aim at the TSA’s SPOT program (Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques), arguing: “10 years after the development of the SPOT program, TSA cannot demonstrate the effectiveness of its behavior detection activities.
“Until TSA can provide scientifically validated evidence demonstrating that behavioral indicators can be used to identify passengers who may pose a threat to aviation security, the agency risks funding activities that have not been determined to be effective,” investigators conclude.
The TSA started the SPOT program in 2007, and has spent roughly $1 billion to maintain the program over the course of its five-year run. Officers trained in the SPOT program aren’t baggage screeners; they’re behavioral detection officers (BDOs) who’ve been trained to watch people.
The BDOs are supposed to look for travelers who appear stressed or afraid, or who, based on behavioral cues, appear to be in deception mode.
But the GAO report said the TSA’s behavioral observation is just about as effective as random suspect targeting.
The meta-analyses we reviewed — which collectively included research from over 400 separate studies related to detecting deception conducted over the past 60 years — found that the ability of human observers to accurately identify deceptive behavior based on behavioral cues or indicators is the same as or slightly better than chance (54 percent).
The bipartisan House Subcommittee on Transportation Security seemed to agree with the report’s findings Thursday, with both Republican and Democratic members saying the program’s funding could be better spent elsewhere. But the TSA viewed the report quite differently, saying in a statement Wednesday that behavioral detection is “vital to TSA’s layered approach to deter, detect, and disrupt individuals who pose a threat to aviation.”