Jay Stanley,
Senior Policy Analyst,
ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project
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June 13, 2013

Lost in all the news about the NSA program this week was the release of a devastating report by the DHS Inspector General on the TSA’s SPOT program (first reported by the New York Times on Sunday). The new report underscores what a waste of money that program has been. After hiring 2,800 full-time staff and spending an estimated $878 million since FY 2007, the program remains deeply misguided not only in its very concept, but also in how it has been implemented.

SPOT (which stands for Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques) is the program that places “Behavior Detection Officers” (BDOs) near airport security lines, where by intrusively chatting with fliers, they will supposedly be able to detect “something amiss” that might suggest a passenger is planning a terrorist attack.

The program has always been ludicrous. In testimony at a 2011 congressional hearing on SPOT, psychologist Dr. Maria Hartwig summarized the decades of empirical research on the detection of deception, which is basically what SPOT is an attempt to do. That research, she said, has found that:

  • Humans do barely better than 50% (chance expectation) in trying to guess whether someone is being deceptive.
  • There are no great variations in individuals’ ability to detect deception.
  • Supposed experts such as cops and customs agents are no better than anyone else.
  • There are few if any reliable cues to deception.
  • People frequently misread signs of stress, nervousness, and discomfort as indicating lies.

At root, the core problem with this program (leaving aside legal objections) is the same as the core problem with polygraphs and other “lie detection” schemes: the relationship between an individual’s internal state of mind, and their external physical behavior or signs, is simply not a consistent or reliable one.

As I discussed in this op-ed, because the SPOT program is based on searching for supposed “signs of terrorism” that are vague and commonplace (while terrorism is anything but commonplace), officers can basically pick anyone they want for extra screening. Surprise, surprise, that often devolves into crude racial profiling—as we have seen repeatedly, most notoriously at Boston’s Logan Airport.

On top of that extremely faulty foundation, the TSA has built a program rife with other problems, the IG report makes clear. Without even assessing the soundness of the rationale for this program (or lack thereof), and just looking at how it is run and how its effectiveness is measured, the IG’s findings are brutal . Excerpts:

TSA cannot ensure that passengers at U.S. airports are screened objectively, show that the program is cost-effective, or reasonably justify the program’s expansion.

TSA cannot accurately assess the effectiveness or evaluate the progress of the SPOT program.

TSA cannot demonstrate that BDOs are screening passengers in a uniform manner to identify potentially high-risk individuals.

TSA had not developed performance measures for the SPOT program.

The report also found that the only “success” that TSA can cite is in the random nabbing of people for non-terrorism-related issues. But as the IG says, that does not relate to the program’s supposed goal:

The program collects data from referral reports that provide measurable outputs of specific activities. However, these outputs do not provide a measure of program effectiveness, because TSA has not established why these outputs support desired outcomes. For example, TSA documents the identification of prohibited items, undeclared currency, and illegal aliens, but the SPOT program has not defined how these outputs support achieving the SPOT program goals.

This is a problem we’ve seen before: the transmogrification of airport security checks into general law enforcement stops or searches, which is not constitutionally permitted. The authorities cannot randomly or based on bogus science stop, interrogate, or search people walking down the street. To the extent they can do these things at the airport, it is only for the purpose of protecting the safety of aircraft.

SPOT is based on the myth that with a little training, thousands of BDOs can turn into hardened experts straight out of the latest spy or crime thriller, able to see right through troublemakers with the intuition of a James Bond. So one thing we might expect the program would do well is training, right? From the IG’s report:

TSA has not developed a training strategy that addresses the goals and objectives of the SPOT program. For example, BDO formal training, such as refresher training, is not consistently provided. Additionally, there is no formalized process to evaluate BDO instructors, who provide the only formal classroom training to BDOs, in the Performance Accountability and Standards System. . . . As a result, TSA cannot ensure that training contributes to the uniform screening of passengers.

The IG also reported confused relations between the SPOT program and the law enforcement officers (LEOs) that the BDOs (not being sworn officers themselves) call in when. . . well, we’re not really sure when. Law enforcement officers at some airports “said that they had not received clear information about BDO duties and why referrals from BDOs warranted law enforcement response.” The TSA reported that officers “did not question approximately 13 percent of referred passengers.” One wonders if this is a sign of eye-rolling exasperation on the part of the police officers. We do know that law enforcement “referrals” appear to be wildly inconsistent, with TSA data indicating just 430 referrals from Chicago’s giant O’Hare airport in a recent 16-month period, for example, yet 6,981 at the smaller airport in Orlando, Florida.

A 2010 Government Accountability Office study similarly found the SPOT program had no scientific basis, wasn’t subject to independent expert review and had not undergone cost/benefit analysis, so the latest findings are not a surprise. The new report was ordered by Rep. Bennie Thompson (D, Miss.), who had previously tried to add an amendment defunding the program to Homeland Security appropriations legislation, but it was not adopted. Let’s hope the latest findings will lead to an end to this misguided program.

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