GOVERNMENT REPORT: The TSA's Behaviour Detection Program Is An Unscientific Waste Of Money

The TSA’s behavioural screening program lacks a scientific basis and its funding should be limited,
a new reportfrom the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) says.

The TSA put the Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program into place in fiscal year 2007, and has since spent about $US900 million on it.

The idea is to train TSA officers to detect suspicious behaviour, adding an extra layer of security on top of screening.

Behaviour detection officers (BDO) look for “clusters of behaviours indicative of stress, fear, or deception” and can refer them for additional screening, accompanied by “casual conversation…while continuing to look for behavioural clues.” Depending on the outcome, the officer can call in a law enforcement officer, or allow the passenger to head to the gate.

But the GAO report says there’s no evidence the program works or is worth nearly $US1 billion:

While TSA has several efforts under way to assess the behavioural indicators and expand its collection of data to develop performance metrics for its behavioural detection activities, these efforts are not expected to be completed for several years, and TSA has indicated that additional resources are needed to complete them.

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

Based on those findings, GAO recommends “that the Secretary of Homeland Security direct the TSA Administrator to limit future funding support” until “TSA can provide scientifically validated evidence that demonstrates that behavioural indicators can be used to identify passengers who may pose a threat to aviation security.”

In a statement, a TSA spokesperson said “behaviour detection is vital” to the TSA’s work, and is a “common sense approach used by law enforcement and security personnel across the country and the world.”

Here’s GAO’s breakdown of how SPOT works:

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