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April 13, 2014

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was urged by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) to scale back or even eliminate its “behavior screening” program, in which TSA officers try to strike up conversations with passengers and airport employees as a means of discovering would-be terrorists. A study showed little evidence the program worked.

The GAO claimed that the TSA program was a waste of money. The TSA is an agency with the US Department of Homeland Security with the specific task of ensuring the security of the traveling public. The head of the program, John Pistole, even admitted at the time of the report that the program had never caught a single terrorist. However, recent reports suggest that not only has the TSA not cut back on the program, it is expanding it.

Here are the general findings of the original GAO report:

In November 2013, GAO reported that (1) peer-reviewed, published research we reviewed did not support whether nonverbal behavioral indicators can be used to reliably identify deception, (2) methodological issues limited the usefulness of DHS’s April 2011 SPOT validation study, and (3) variation in referral rates raised questions about the use of indicators. GAO reported that its review of meta-analyses (studies that analyze other studies and synthesize their findings) that included findings from over 400 studies related to detecting deception conducted over the past 60 years, other academic and government studies, and interviews with experts in the field, called into question the use of behavior observation techniques, that is, human observation unaided by technology, as a means for reliably detecting deception. The meta-analyses GAO reviewed collectively found that the ability of human observers to accurately identify deceptive behavior based on behavioral cues or indicators is the same as or slightly better than chance (54 percent). GAO also reported on other studies that do not support the use of behavioral indicators to identify mal-intent or threats to aviation.

Apparently the TSA has simply ignored the GAO study and has expanded the behavioral observation program on passengers at Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport. A test extension of the program began on March 5 and is to continue through April 28.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) claims that the program is an intrusion into the privacy of travelers and has no scientific evidence showing that it is efficient. The TSA did not respond to his criticisms.


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