Too much yawning, add one point.
Whistling, add another point.
Widely open staring eyes, add two points.
If your score climbs to six or higher, the TSA is going to pull you out of the airport security line for a closer inspection.
According to a document leaked to The Intercept on March 27, this point system is part of the TSA’s Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program. TSA employees have used it since 2007 as a way to identify potential terrorists.
How many terrorists have they caught using this program? Zero.
Critics and scientists say that’s because it’s based on flawed science and almost certainly leads to racial profiling.
The SPOT program
The TSA has thousands of what it calls “behaviour detection” officers deployed at more than one-third of US airports. They scan security lines for suspicious looking people and behaviour.
There are 92 possible points on the check list leaked to The Intercept, and certain behaviours get you more points than others. Things like too much fidgeting gets you a point. A cold stare gets you two points. But if you’re woman over the age of 55, you get a point taken off.
Despite years of criticism from airport employees and scientists who say this is just an excuse to yank whoever they want out of line, the TSA has spent nearly $US1 billion on the program, and it has repeatedly denied that SPOT leads to racial profiling.
However, back in 2012, employees from the Logan airport in Boston came forward and said they estimated 80% of the passengers being pulled from security lines were minorities.
The problem is that the TSA does not keep a record of the racial background of people that they stop.
“They are able to plead ignorance of those statistics,” Handeyside told Buzzfeed News. “We find that incredibly problematic.”
Reviews of SPOT have shown that only 1% of the 30,000 people stopped every year are ever arrested. And the arrests are for things like drug possession or travelling with undeclared items — never for terrorism.
The documents describing this controversial program are not classified, but the TSA has refused to share them. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request last year for information on the training, methods, and scientific validity of the SPOT program.
The TSA did not respond to the request, and now the ACLU has filed a lawsuit, because it is illegal for a government agency to ignore a FOIA request.
Much of the SPOT program is based on research that began in the 1970s by psychologist Paul Ekman. Ekman’s work hypothesized that subtle facial expressions, called microexpressions, can tell you a lot about a person, and someone trained to read those microexpressions could guess someone’s intentions.
However, it’s never been proven in any experiment that someone can glance through faces in a crowded place like an airport and tell if someone is being deceptive or lying, according to Charles Honts, a lie detection expert at Boise State University.
There are few (if any) behaviours that are clearly linked to lying, scientists say. And it’s impossible to tell from observing someone for a few seconds in a security line if they’re keeping some kind of secret.
Sure, someone might look a little nervous or scared because they’re about to commit a horrifying crime. But they may just be nervous about flying or antsy that they’re having to wait in line when they’re already running late for their flight.
In 2013, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) examined over 400 studies on lie detection. From that huge survey, the organisation concluded that the average person can only tell if someone is lying 54% of the time. That’s barely better than pure chance.
From the survey, the GAO concluded there’s not any scientific evidence that someone can learn to spot who’s keeping a secret and who’s not, so it recommended that funding for the SPOT program be limited until the TSA could provide some real evidence that it’s useful.
The GAO report was just a recommendation though, and the SPOT program is still up and running. If we consider what behavioural science tells us (or can’t tell us), it looks like we really need a new method for airport security checks.
“What we know about SPOT suggests it wastes taxpayer money, leads to racial profiling, and should be scrapped,” ACLU’s staff attorney Hugh Handeyside said in the lawsuit announcement.
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