I have yet to see a Government Accountability Office report that can't be described as "highly negative" -- at minimum. Most tend to fall somewhere between "brutal" and "scathing." This is a good thing, although I imagine any agency that is the subject of these reports strongly feels otherwise.
Unfortunately, I'm also inclined to believe that I'll go to my grave before I see a GAO report giving its subject a thumbs up or a 3-out-of-5 star rating. This is a bad thing, because it suggests many of these agencies coast from scathing review to scathing review with minimal interest in improving things.
The GAO's report on the TSA's Behavioral Detection program, SPOT (Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques), is out and it's every bit as bad as the laborious lead-in above would have you believe. First off, any program that immediately conjures up this scene from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia is a program that has some serious problems.
[relevant dialog here for those unwilling/unable to view video]
Frank: Yeah, he probably just carved up his mother and father and he’s runnin’ away on the road.
Dennis: That’s right.
Mac: Could be, Frank. All I’m saying is that I’m ready for any situation. And that’s why you’re all safe as long as I’m around.
Mac: Yeah, I did an ocular pat-down and I cleared him.
Frank: Say what?
Dee: I’m sorry?
Mac: I’m saying that I did an ocular assessment of the situation, garnered that he was not a security risk and I cleared him for passage.
Dennis: What in the hell are you talking about?
Mac: I’m talking about breaking down the security situation, clearing an individual and making it safe for passage.
The TSA has been attempting for years to up its security game. Rather than roll back questionable barn-door-closing policies, it has instead opted to increase the number of highly trained BDOs (Behavioral Detection Officers) deployed in our nation's airports. This has been slowly developing since 2007 and hasn't improved over the last half-decade. All told, nearly a billion dollars have been sunk into the program, with the end result being a scattershot system that the GAO says detects potential threats with an accuracy that is "the same or slightly better than chance."
There are 99 pages full of investigative info and proposed remedies in the report
, but most of what's wrong with the program is handled up front.
Four years after the rollout, a Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) was assembled to test the program's accuracy by comparing SPOT's hit rate with randomly selected passengers. But any hopes of this test providing an accurate reflection of the program's efficacy was completely undermined by the TSA's refusal to share any
pertinent data with the TAC.
According to the TAC report, TAC members received briefings from the contractor that described the study plans and results, but because of TSA’s security concerns, TAC members did not receive detailed information about the contents of the SPOT referral report, the individual indicators used in the SPOT program, the validation study data, or the final report containing complete details of the SPOT validation study results. The TAC report noted that several TAC members felt that these restrictions hampered their ability to perform their assigned tasks.
In other words, the TSA was so "concerned" about security that it prevented a committee tasked with evaluating its security program from performing its duties. And, obviously, the overriding concern was for the TSA's security, not the passengers' security. The stymied TAC still produced a report, but considering the number of limitations it was subjected to, its findings were relatively meaningless.
The Behavioral Detection program was supposed to be the cutting edge of airport security, turning the agency into a smarter, more responsive security force. But instead of applying any sort of scientifically proven methods, the agency leaned heavily on BDO hunches. (This has been observed in other DHS agencies as well. The DHS notably stated
in its Civil Liberties Assessment that CBP agent hunches should supersede any civil liberties concerns when it comes to searching electronics at the borders.)
The GAO has the following to say about the "science" behind the SPOT program.
Peer-reviewed, published research does not support whether the use of nonverbal behavioral indicators by human observers can accurately identify deception. Our review of meta-analyses and other studies related to detecting deception conducted over the past 60 years, and interviews with experts in the field, question the use of behavior observation techniques, that is, human observation unaided by technology, as a means for reliably detecting deception. The meta-analyses, or reviews that synthesize the findings of other studies, we reviewed collectively included research from more than 400 separate studies on detecting deception, and 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).
Moreover, a 2008 study performed for the Department of Defense by the JASON Program Office reviewed behavior detection programs, including the methods used by the SPOT program, and found that no compelling evidence exists to support remote observation of physiological signals that may indicate fear or nervousness in an operational scenario by human observers, and no scientific evidence exists to support the use of these signals in detecting or inferring future behavior or intent…
Fear or nervousness is a common reaction in people with "nothing to hide" when trapped in a conversation
with a TSA agent who has the power to do anything from preventing them from making their flight to holding them indefinitely and/or turning them over to law enforcement simply because they don't like an answer or the manner in which the answer was delivered.
And it goes far beyond simply sniffing around aimlessly for "suspicious behavior."
In particular, the report stated that success in identifying deception and intent in other studies is post hoc and such studies incorrectly equate success in identifying terrorists with the identification of drug smugglers, warrant violators, or others. For example, when describing the techniques used by BDOs in the SPOT program, the report concluded that even if a correlation were found between abnormal behaviors and guilt as a result of some transgression, there is no clear indication that the guilt caused the abnormal behavior. The report also noted that the determination that the abnormal behavior was caused by guilt was made after the fact, rather than being based on established criteria beforehand.
So, we have hunches and post facto attributions masquerading as a behavioral detection program. A billion dollars have been sunk into a program that has no scientific basis and that has never been conclusively proven to provide better threat detection than a BDO could achieve by flipping a coin.
This is what's supposedly keeping us safe from airborne acts of terrorism. Despite the lack of results, the TSA as recently as 2011 declared it was looking to expand this program
. Sure, claiming to be following the "Israeli model" may make the agency look
smarter, but in practice, there's very little indication this program has done anything to make BDOs better… or us safer.