There’s a long article in Nature on the practice:
It remains unclear what the officers found anomalous about George’s behaviour, and why he was detained. The TSA’s parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), has declined to comment on his case because it is the subject of a federal lawsuit that was filed on George’s behalf in February by the American Civil Liberties Union. But the incident has brought renewed attention to a burgeoning controversy: is it possible to know whether people are being deceptive, or planning hostile acts, just by observing them?
Some people seem to think so. At London’s Heathrow Airport, for example, the UK government is deploying behaviour-detection officers in a trial modelled in part on SPOT. And in the United States, the DHS is pursuing a programme that would use sensors to look at nonverbal behaviours, and thereby spot terrorists as they walk through a corridor. The US Department of Defense and intelligence agencies have expressed interest in similar ideas.
Yet a growing number of researchers are dubious not just about the projects themselves, but about the science on which they are based. “Simply put, people (including professional lie-catchers with extensive experience of assessing veracity) would achieve similar hit rates if they flipped a coin,” noted a 2007 report from a committee of credibility-assessment experts who reviewed research on portal screening.
“No scientific evidence exists to support the detection or inference of future behaviour, including intent,” declares a 2008 report prepared by the JASON defence advisory group. And the TSA had no business deploying SPOT across the nation’s airports “without first validating the scientific basis for identifying suspicious passengers in an airport environment”, stated a two-year review of the programme released on 20 May by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of the US Congress.
Commentary from the MindHacks blog.
Also, the GAO has published a report on the U.S. DHS’s SPOT program: “Aviation Security: Efforts to Validate TSA’s Passenger Screening Behavior Detection Program Underway, but Opportunities Exist to Strengthen Validation and Address Operational Challenges.”
As of March 2010, TSA deployed about 3,000 BDOs at an annual cost of about $212 million; this force increased almost fifteen-fold between March 2007 and July 2009. BDOs have been selectively deployed to 161 of the 457 TSA-regulated airports in the United States at which passengers and their property are subject to TSA-mandated screening procedures.
It seems pretty clear that the program only catches criminals, and no terrorists. You’d think there would be more important things to spend $200 million a year on.
EDITED TO ADD (6/14): In the comments, a couple of people asked how this compares with the Israeli model of airport security — concentrate on the person — and the idea that trained officers notice if someone is acting “hinky”: both things that I have written favorably about.
The difference is the experience of the detecting officer and the amount of time they spend with each person. If you read about the programs described above, they’re supposed to “spot terrorists as they walk through a corridor,” or possibly after a few questions. That’s very different from what happens when you check into a flight an Ben Gurion Airport.
The problem with fast detection programs is that they don’t work, and the problem with the Israeli security model is that it doesn’t scale.
Posted on June 14, 2010 at 6:23 AM •