Pseudoscience at Gate B6
This is a guest post written by Matt Freeman, an epidemiologist and nurse practitioner. His fields are adolescent and men’s health. He holds a doctorate in nursing from Duke University, a masters in nursing from The Ohio State University, a masters in epidemiology and public health from The Yale School of Medicine, and a Bachelor of Arts from Brandeis University. His blog is located at www.medfly.org.
It was mid-morning on a Saturday. I had only hand luggage, and had checked in online the day before. I arrived at the small airport exactly one hour before departure. I was a bit annoyed that the flight was delayed, but otherwise not expecting too much trouble. It was a 90-minute flight on a 70-seat regional jet.
By my best estimate, there were 80 passengers waiting to enter the security checkpoint. Most seemed to be leisure travelers: families with little kids, older adults. There was an abundance of sunburn and golf shirts.
The queue inched along. As I looked around, anxiety was escalating. There was a lot of chatter about missing flights; several people were in tears knowing that they would certainly have their travel plans fall into disarray.
One TSA employee with two stripes on his lapels walked his way through the increasingly antsy crowd.
“What is the province of your destination?” He asked the woman next to me.
“Yes, which province? British Columbia? Ontario?”
Confused, the woman replied, “I’m going to Houston. I don’t know what province that’s in.”
The TSA agent scoffed. He moved on to the next passenger. “The same question for you, ma’am. What is the province of your destination?”
The woman didn’t speak, handing over her driver’s license and boarding card, assuming that was what he wanted. He stared back with disdain.
There are no flights from this airport to Canada.
When it was my turn, I volunteered, “I’m going to Texas, not Canada.”
“What are the whereabouts of your luggage?” He asked.
“Their whereabouts? My bag is right here next to me.”
“Yes, what are its whereabouts?”
“It’s right here.”
“And that’s its whereabouts?”
This was seeming like a grammatical question.
“And about its contents? Are you aware of them?”
“Yes,” I replied, quizzically.
He moved on.
I missed my flight. The woman next to me met the same fate. She cried. I cringed. We pleaded with the airline agent for clemency. The plane pushed back from the gate with many passengers waiting to be asked about the whereabouts of their belongings or their province of destination.
The agent asking the strange questions and delaying the flights was a part of the SPOT program.
The SPOT Program
In 2006, the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) introduced “SPOT: Screening Passengers by Observational Techniques.” The concept was to identify nonverbal indicators that a passenger was engaged in foul play. Some years after the program started, the US Government Accounting Office (GAO) declared that, “no scientific evidence exists to support the detection of or inference of future behavior.”
SPOT is expensive too. The GAO reported that the program has cost more than $900 million since its inauguration. That is just the cost of training staff and operating the program, not the costs incurred by delayed or detained passengers.
The “Science” Behind Behavioral Techniques
The SPOT program was developed by multiple sources, but there is one most prominent psychologist in the field: Paul Ekman PhD.
Ekman published Emotion in the Human Face, which demonstrated that six basic human emotions: anger, sadness, fear, happiness, surprise, and disgust, are universally expressed on the human face. Ekman had travelled to New Guinea to show that facial expressions did not vary across geography or culture.
Ekman’s theory was undisputed for 20 years until Lisa Feldman Barrett PhD showed that Ekman’s research required observers to select from the list of six emotions. When observers were asked to analyze emotions without a list, there was some reliability in the recognition of happiness and fear. The others emotions could not be distinguished.
When confronted with skepticism from scientists, Ekman declined to release the details of his research for peer review.
Charles Honts, Ph.D., attempted to replicate Ekman’s findings at the University of Utah. No dice. Ekman’s “secret” findings could not be replicated. Maria Hartwig PhD, a psychologist at City University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, described Ekman’s work as, “a leap of gargantuan dimensions not supported by scientific evidence.”
When asked directly, a TSA analyst pointed to the work of David Givens, Ph.D., an anthropologist and author. Givens has published popular works on body language, but Givens explained that the TSA did not specify which elements of his own theories were adopted by the TSA, and the TSA never asked him.
The TSA’s Response
When asked for statistics, TSA analyst Carl Maccario cited one anecdote of a passenger who was “rocking back and forth strangely,” and was later found to have been carrying fuel bottles that contained flammable materials. The TSA described these items as, “the makings of a pipe bomb,” but there was no evidence that the passenger was doing anything other than carrying a dangerous substance in his hand luggage. There was nothing to suggest that he planned to hurt anyone.
A single anecdote is not research, and this was a weak story at best.
When the GAO investigated further, they analyzed the data of 232,000 passengers who were identified by “behavioral detection” as cause for concern. Of the 232,000, there were 1,710 arrests. These arrests were mostly due to outstanding arrest warrants, and there is no evidence that any were ever linked to terrorist activity.
What Criteria Are Used in the SPOT Program?
In 2015, The Intercept published the TSA’s worksheet for behavioral detection officers. Here it is:
As much as the TSA’s behavioral detection mathematical model is hilarious, it is also frightening. The model seeks to identify whistling and shaving.
If I score myself before a typical flight, I earn eight points, which assigned me to the highest risk category. If one followed the paperwork, I should have been referred for extensive screening and law enforcement was to be notified.
Considering that the criteria include yawning, whistling, a subjectively fast “eye blink rate,” “strong body odor” and head turning, just about everyone reaches the SPOT threshold.
The Risk of Scoring
Looking past the absence of evidence, there are further problems with the SPOT worksheet. “Scored” decisions can detract common sense. It does not matter if a hijacker or terrorist fails to whistle or blinks at a normal rate if he or she blows up the airplane.
The Israeli Method
As an Israeli national, I became accustomed to the envied security techniques employed at Israel’s four commercial airports.
The agents employed by the Israeli Airports Authority (IAA) do indeed “profile” passengers, but their efforts are often quicker, easier, and arguably more sensitive.
The questions are usually reasonable and fast. “Where have your bags been since you packed them?” “Did anyone give you anything to take with you?” “Are you carrying anything that could be used as a weapon?”
The IAA is cautious about race and religion. The worst attack on Israeli air transportation took place in 1972 at Ben Gurion Airport. Twenty-six people were killed. The assailants were Japanese, posing as tourists. Since that attack, the IAA has attempted to include ethnicity and religion only as components of its screening process.
Although many have published horror stories, the overwhelming majority of passengers do not encounter anything extraordinary at Israeli airports. The agents are usually young, bubbly, right out of their army service, and eager to show off any language skills they may have acquired.
Is There a Better Answer?
Israel does not publish statistics, and I could not tell you if their system is any better. The difference is one of attitude: most of the IAA staff are kind, calm, and not interested in hassling anyone. They do not care how fast you are blinking or if you shave.
Given the amount of air travel to, from, and within the United States, I doubt that questioning passengers would ever work. The TSA lacks the organization, multilingual skills, and service mentality of the Israel Airports Authority.
The TSA already has one answer, but they chose not to use it in my case. I am a member of the Department of Homeland Security’s “Global Entry” program. This means that I was subject to a background check, interview, and fingerprinting. The Department of Homeland Security vetted my credentials and deemed that I did not present any extraordinary risks, and could therefore use its “PreCheck” lane. But this airport had decided to close its PreCheck lane that day. And their SPOT agent had no knowledge that I had already been vetted through databases and fingerprints… arguably a more reliable system than having him determine if I blinked too rapidly.
Until 2015, the PreCheck program also meant that one need not pass through a full-body scanning machine, in part because the machines are famously slow and inaccurate. They are particularly problematic for those with disabilities and other medical conditions. But the TSA decided that it would switch to random use of full body scanners even for those passengers who had already been vetted. Lines grew longer; no weapons have been discovered.
- The SPOT program has been proven to be ineffective. There is no rational reason to keep it in place.
- There must not be quotas or incentives for detailed searches and questioning in the absence of probable cause.
- Passengers consenting to a search should have the right to know what the search entails, particularly if it involves odd interrogation techniques that can lead to missing one’s flight.
- The TSA should respect previous court rulings that the search process begins when a passenger consents to being searched. Asking questions outside of the TSA’s custodial area of the airport is questionable for legal reasons.
- Reduce lines. The attacks in Rome and Vienna were more than four decades ago, but that has not dissuaded the TSA. Get the queue moving quickly, thereby reducing the opportunity for an attack. The more recent attack in Brussels still did not change TSA policy.
- Stratified screening, such as the PreCheck program, makes sense. But it TSA staff elect to ignore the program, then it is no longer useful.
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