Terrorists Slip Past TSA's Scientifically Untested Behavioral Threat Detection Program

By Matthew Harwood

But even if BDOs could accurately select passengers exhibiting potentially suspicious behaviors—and the GAO is skeptical they can, especially as fatigue sets in—there is no firm scientific foundation for behavorial threat detection.

The government watchdog notes that a 2008 report from the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that there was no scientific consensus behind using behavioral detection techniques to identify potential terrorists. The report goes on to state that even if behavioral detection techniques could accurately pick out evidence of deception or specific emotional states, the practitioner could not know the reason behind the irregular behavior.

"A person exhibiting nervousness may be excited about meeting someone at the airport or about being late. A person lying about his or her travel plans may be concealing an extramarital affair. A person fidgeting may be experiencing back pain," the report Protecting Individual Privacy in the Struggle Against Terrorists observes. "None of those persons would be the targets of counterterrorist efforts, nor should they be—and the possibility that their true motivations and intents may be revealed has definite privacy implications."

Both the TSA and the Science and Technology (S&T) Directorate, the Department of Homeland Security's research and development arm, do not dispute that the SPOT program was implemented before validation, but defend the program by arguing no behavioral threat detection program, whether domestic or international, has been scientifically validated. Instead, S&T officials based the program's effectiveness on unpublished studies from DHS and defense and intelligence communities, but could not tell GAO investigators the sources of this research.

Despite the program being on shaky scientific ground at best, the GAO reports TSA defied government protocols and deployed SPOT without conducting a cost-benefit analysis. "Although the DHS and OMB guidance recommend that a cost-benefit analysis be conducted prior to deploying a program nationwide—and potentially incurring substantial costs—TSA did not conduct such an analysis of SPOT to inform its pilot testing prior to full-scale nationwide deployment," the GAO states.

The TSA's own numbers call into question the program's effectiveness. Between 2004 and 2008, more than 2 billion passengers boarded planes at SPOT airports with BDOs identifying 152,000 passengers for secondary screening, which led to 1,083 arrests. None of those arrested, however, were terrorists or individuals who intended to attack the aviation system. Moreover, since TSA never scientifically tested the SPOT program, there's no way to know whether random screening wouldn't have produced similar or better results, the GAO notes.

Nevertheless, TSA claims the SPOT program is just one of 20 layers of security that makes it extremely difficult for a terrorist to successfully carry out an attack inside the aviation system.

Rep. Mica begs to differ.

"Penetration testing continues to show that even with new screening technology and the SPOT program, the aviation screening system is not working."

♦ Graphic of SPOT process by GAO

♦ Graph of Passenger Boardings at SPOT Airports, May 29, 2004, through August 31, 2008 by GAO


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