Transportation Security Administration agents aren't so good as they might claim at honing their spidey senses to detect would-de doers of evil deeds. And they're persistently not good, expending time and money—lots of money—on a behavioral indicators program that has never shown much promise for heading off terrorists. That's the word from just the latest Government Accountability Office report to give a big bronx cheer to the Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program, which the TSA has pursued in the total absence of any promising evidence of success, or even of a decent plan for gathering such evidence, in its quest for a magical way to do its job. Just stop, says the GAO.
In TSA Should Limit Future Funding for Behavior Detection Activities (PDF), the authors write:
Available evidence does not support whether behavioral indicators, which are used in the Transportation Security Administration's (TSA) Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program, can be used to identify persons who may pose a risk to aviation security. GAO reviewed four meta-analyses (reviews that analyze other studies and synthesize their findings) that included over 400 studies from the past 60 years and found that the human ability to accurately identify deceptive behavior based on behavioral indicators is the same as or slightly better than chance. Further, the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) April 2011 study conducted to validate SPOT's behavioral indicators did not demonstrate their effectiveness because of study limitations, including the use of unreliable data.
Translation: Not only has the TSA offered no evidence that this approach works, nobody has ever found any support for the idea.
So, what should the folks tasked with poking and prodding us at the nation's airports, all for our own good, we're told, do?
Until TSA can provide scientifically validated evidence demonstrating that behavioral indicators can be used to identify passengers who may pose a threat to aviation security, the agency risks funding activities that have not been determined to be effective.
That's sad news for the roughly 3,000 behavior detection officers the TSA deploys at airports around the United States to engage in what the GAO concludes is essentially voodoo. That's voodoo at an annual cost of about $200 million, and a cost to date of $900 million since 2007.
Note that this is not the first time the GAO has called out the TSA for putting lots of resources into unproven behavior detection schemes. Reports in 2010 and 2012 also slammed the uniformed crotch-fondlers for deploying SPOT "without first validating the scientific basis for identifying suspicious passengers in an airport environment."
The earlier GAO reports also took the TSA to task for not investigating the reliability of other programs, such as biometric identification cards for controlling access to sensitive port facilities, and for purchasing expensive equipment and then leaving it to gather dust.
But the TSA has mastered sullen groping, as we all know.