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Government Study Proves TSA Behavior Profiling is Useless, TSA Expands It Anyway

April 17, 2014 at 3:43 PM | by | ()

Last fall the Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a study showing that TSA's behavior profiling program - creatively named "SPOT" - was useless. The technical language was that the project succeeded in catching bad guys at a rate only "slightly better than chance," but that's GAO code for "worthless."

Naturally people assumed that the program would be scaled back. Instead - per a Washington Times report from last week that made its way around the Internet - TSA has expanded the program to BWI. Because why should a failure, especially a failure that members of Congress blast as "an intrusion into the privacy of the flying public," prevent programs from steamrolling forward?

There's nothing inherently wrong with behavior profiling. Somewhat famously, in 1986, Israeli security officers working for El Al used Israeli-style questioning to find a hidden bomb in the carry-on bag of a pregnant woman who didn't even know she was carrying it (she had been given the bag by her Jordanian terrorist boyfriend). The incident happened in London. The woman was Irish, so racial profiling had nothing to do with the detection. They just didn't like the answers she gave to their questions.

The problem is that behavior profiling is hard. It requires hiring really good people, giving them extensive training, and then having the public cooperate with intrusive questioning. We guessed that TSA's recruitment model - which quite literally involves pizza boxes - wouldn't be up to the task of finding adequate screeners. We also suggested that Americans wouldn't put up with aggressive probing, and that in any case TSA wasn't training their behavior specialists for long enough.

Of course we ended up being right. Since they didn't know what they were supposed to be looking for, and since they worked through questions quickly, TSA behavior profilers ended up focusing on race. That went went poorly.

But us being right isn't the point of this post (though it's always worth noting).

The point is that SPOT doesn't work, and there are studies that show SPOT doesn't work, and yet here we are anyway. This is what people talk about when they complain about bureaucracies never going away, but instead expanding and expanding and expanding.

[Photo: KSTP / YouTube]

Archived Comments:

Well Argue

This is one of the best opinion pieces I've read regarding the TSA SPOT program. Most critics ignore the fact that when properly executed, behavioral profiling can work. Yet, as noted, no TSA agent is going to be an effective profiler after a week-long seminar.

A few years ago, I took a course called "Crisis Negotiation" (aka suicide prevention and hostage negotiation) for my doctoral program. It was taught by a FBI agent with a PhD and years of real-world experience. This guy told stories that made me pray I'd never find myself needing to use the things I was learning.

During the course, we did talk about terrorism and behavioral profiling. The professor believed that it does work...provided you know what you're doing. He said that training takes years, not hours like the TSA thinks.