The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) published a damning report today that shows how the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), better known as your airport’s security force, created and then expanded a program meant to spot suspected terrorists based on deceptive behavior, even though it relied on unscientific data and ultimately led to racial profiling and harassment in airports nationwide.
The TSA program in question—called behavior detection program—started in 2007 under the name SPOT, or Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques. It originally required special “behavior detection officers” to roam airports in uniform or plain clothes, looking behavioral clues from people that may have an intent to harm others.
But the TSA has never produced empirical evidence in support of the programs, despite rapidly expanding it in the last few years, costing taxpayers a total of $1.5 billion between 2007 and 2015. When the TSA commissioned a 2011 study to validate its behavior detection techniques, an assessment from Government Accountability Office (GAO) found the study “did not demonstrate their effectiveness because of study limitations, including the use of unreliable data.”
The GOA recommended in 2014 that future funding for the TSA’s behavior detection programs be stopped, citing “400 studies from the past 60 years” that found “the human ability to accurately identify deceptive behavior based on behavioral indicators is the same as or slightly better than chance.”
It’s not the only agency fighting the behavioral detection program, either. Government watchdogs, members of Congress, and the ACLU have vehemently fought against the program, claiming it lacks grounding in science. In an effort to prove this theory, the ACLU filed a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in June 2015 and published a report today based on the 13,000 pages of TSA documents it obtained through the lawsuit.
The new TSA documents reveal that the agency relied on academic studies to justify the program that according to the ACLU “broadly reject” the notion of identifying criminals based on the way they look and behave. The documents obtained through the ACLU’s lawsuit include several details that have not previously been public. The new revelations include TSA files filled with academic research that undermine the validity of behavioral detection program.
In many cases, studies used to justify the program are outright antithetical to the cause. For example, a University of Portsmouth study found in the TSA’s research files claim that behavioral detection doesn’t work at all:
Four decades of deception research in which more than 100 studies have been published have revealed one major finding. The mere fact that someone lies will not affect his behavior, voice or speech, and therefore typical deceptive responses such as ‘Pinocchio’s growing nose’ do not exist.
There are plenty of other egregious examples, too. A 2007 study published in Law and Human Behavior, which is also found in TSA’s research documents used to justify the program’s existence, outright denies an officer’s ability to detect whether a person is lying or has malignant intent.
The present experiment revealed that style of interviewing did not affect on overall accuracy (ability to distinguish between truths or lies) or on lie detection accuracy (ability to correctly identify liars). In fact, the overall accuracy rates were low and did not differ from the level of chance. This study, like so many previous studies, thus shows the difficulty police officers face when discerning truths from lies by observing the suspect’s verbal and nonverbal behaviors.
Another example of a study found in the TSA’s possession that would seem to undermine the program is a 2004 study that found police officers who think indicators such as fidgeting or eye contact are signs of deception “are the worst lie detectors.”
The research found in the TSA’s possession mostly echoes what government watchdogs have said for years. In 2014, the Government Accountability Office found that “peer-reviewed, published research does not support whether the use of nonverbal behavioral indicators by human observers can accurately identify deception.”
It makes sense when you look at the TSA’s broad list of indicators such as “widely open staring eyes” or “no or little direct eye contact” that are outright contradictory and inconsistent. This has opened the door for racial profiling and abuse. One former behavior detection officer described it as a “license to harass” in a 2015 interview with The Intercept.
The new documents obtained by the ACLU also reveal previously undisclosed incidents of racial discrimination including an investigation at Newark International Airport that found “numerous instances of outright discriminatory profiling.” There are plenty of other examples of racial and ethnic profiling outlined in TSA’s documents including cases at Miami, Chicago, and Honolulu airports.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, the TSA rejected the ACLU’s claims and said behavioral detection is only one element of security designed to fight terrorism. In the LA Times story, a TSA spokesperson said, “Behavior detection is threat-agnostic, and unlike technology, does not become obsolete when the adversary develops a new weapon or tactic.” (TSA did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s own request for comment.)
As evidenced by TSA’s own documents, behavioral science doesn’t support that claim. Still, there is little hope that the TSA’s controversial program will be suspended or discontinued, even with its lack of efficacy. Both the ACLU and GOA recommend that Congressional committees with oversight hold hearings to assess the validity of the program and look closely at the risk of unlawful profiling. Both organizations also hope to end funding to behavior detection activities. For now, it’s in Congress’ hands.
Update 2:24 ET: The TSA provided Gizmodo with the following statement:
TSA stands by its Behavior Detection capability. TSA’s behavior detection approach is designed to identify and engage individuals who may be high-risk (e.g., possess malicious intent) on the basis of an objective process using behavioral indicators and thresholds, and then route them to additional security screening. Behavior Detection is threat-agnostic, and unlike technology, does not become obsolete when the adversary develops a new weapon or tactic. It is one element of TSA’s efforts to mitigate threats against the traveling public, and is critical to TSA’s systems approach to deter, detect, and disrupt individuals who pose a threat to aviation. TSA’s use of the capability continues to evolve and is no longer a separate program. The capability and the officers who were previously Behavior Detection Officers have been integrated into the workforce, in accordance with the 2016 FAA Authorization Act.