Home > Uncategorized > Pseudoscience at Gate B6

Pseudoscience at Gate B6

October 31, 2016

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:

tsa.jpgAs 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.

Looking Forward

  1. The SPOT program has been proven to be ineffective. There is no rational reason to keep it in place.
  2. There must not be quotas or incentives for detailed searches and questioning in the absence of probable cause.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Stratified screening, such as the PreCheck program, makes sense. But it TSA staff elect to ignore the program, then it is no longer useful.


Benton H, Carter M, Heath D, and Neff J. The Warning. The Seattle Times. 23 July 2002.

Borland J. Maybe surveillance is bad, after all. Wired. 8 August 2007.

Dicker K. Yes, the TSA is probably profiling you and it’s scientifically bogus. Business Insider. 6 May 2015.

Herring A. The new face of emotion. Northeastern Magazine. Spring 2014.

Kerr O. Do travelers have a right to leave airport security areas without the TSA’s Permission. The Washington Post. 6 April 2014.

Martin H. Conversations are more effective for screening passengers, study finds.  The Los Angeles Times. 16 November 2014.

The men who stare at airline passengers. The Economist. 6 June 2010.

Segura L. Feeling nervous? 3,000 Behavioral Detection Officers will be watching you at the airport this thanksgiving. Alternet. 23 November 2009

Smith T. Next in line for the TSA? A thorough ‘chat down.’ National Public Radio. 16 August 2011.

Wallis R. Lockerbie: The Story and the Lessons. London: Praeger. 2000.

Weinberger S. Intent to deceive: Can the science of deception detection help catch terrorists? Nature. 465:27. May 2010.

US House of Representatives. Behavioral Science and Security: Evaluating the TSA’s SPOT Program. Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Investigation and Oversight. Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. Serial 112-11. 6 April 2011.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Guest2
    October 31, 2016 at 6:40 am

    Unbelievable. Usually, TSA personnel have clear roles and locations. This experience violated those expectations, and the SPOT official seems more like a concentration camp guard than someone whose goal is safety.

    “The agent asking the strange questions and delaying the flights was a part of the SPOT program.” How was this determined?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thaumatechnician
    October 31, 2016 at 9:19 am

    “Province”? Maybe the TSA agent meant “an area of special knowledge, interest, or responsibility.”

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Aaron Lercher
    October 31, 2016 at 1:56 pm

    I am reminded of the Voigt-Kampff test from Blade Runner:
    “You are in the desert walking along in the sand and you see a tortoise …”

    But perhaps the bridge of death in Monty Python’s Life of Brian is a closer match.

    “Well, you have to know these things when you’re king, you know.”

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Jon Lubar
    October 31, 2016 at 6:26 pm

    It would have been more productive to interview cops and develop a program from their experience since they have so much more of it. With actual criminals. A grifter disguised as an academic, not so much. Why was confusion not one of the six? Plus, with pot becoming legal in more places, how do you account for folks so stoned that all they can do is stare back at you when your question makes no sense at all? Tax dollars down the drain. Everyone’s time wasted.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Lars
    November 2, 2016 at 10:31 am
  6. November 3, 2016 at 4:44 am

    The SPOT program is now automated in China – Realtime facial expression recognition with a super-computer in the backend http://www.computerworld.com/article/3136745/robotics/china-s-policing-robot-cattle-prod-meets-supercomputer.html


  7. November 4, 2016 at 4:14 am

    Everything is bigger in America, and the above examples of government misconduct and offensive use of almost totalitarian force are very troubling. I’d like to point to another point in this article, one which the writer might not be aware of, as a Jew living outside of Israel.

    Racial profiling of Arab Israelis, both Muslims and Christians, is at its height – as a policy and as a practice. The chances of an Arab being stopped, questioned, interrogated and much, much worse are not comparable to those of a Jew.

    Freeman wrote:
    “[…] 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 […] 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.”

    No – their main concern is your ethnic, religious and national background.

    For further reading:

    Liked by 1 person

  8. TR
    November 6, 2016 at 3:02 pm

    I have to concur with Amir. Your description of the Israeli system reflects enormous but common misconceptions many Israeli nationals have about how it works. As a foreigner living in Israel, when the security agents got to the questions you mentioned: “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?” that wasn’t the interview, that was the sign that the interview was over. As a Jewish Israeli national, you have probably never been subjected to an actual security interview. The questions I was usually asked were designed to, first, determine whether I was Jewish, and, second, determine if I had any association with Arabs. Some examples were: “What is the origin of your name? Did you learn Hebrew in Israel or as a child? Were you a member of a [religious] community in the US? What are the names of some of your friends? Have you been to Nazareth?” I had a friend who was once asked point blank whether he had any Arab friends. Arab citizens of Israel are automatically given the second-highest security threat rating, unless they’re particularly famous and happen to be recognized by the staff. The security screening that you’re ultimately given by the IAA would appear to be entirely determined on the basis of your ethnicity, religion, official status in the country, who you’re traveling with, and little else. This would be impossible to implement in the US, in addition to being patently illegal.

    Despite what appears to be greater training of IAA staff compared to the people who work for the TSA, too, this doesn’t prevent idiocy, and I’ve also been subject to the Israeli equivalent of the fool who interviewed you. Once, when I brought a kindle in my check-in bags, it was taken to be inspected in another room (as was usual during that period). The girl who did it came back with the kindle, showed it to her supervisor and asked her supervisor, “This is an ipad, right?” to which he responded, “No, it’s a kindle.” They then said something I didn’t hear, and the supervisor took the kindle, turned to me, and said, “I’m sorry, but we don’t allow these in carry-on luggage. It will have to be sent in a box on another plane.” This was completely false, as I knew because I’d taken it with me in carry on both before and after – through the same increased security procedure – but he wouldn’t budge. Luckily, I did get it several days later, and it was intact and working, despite the fact that they had put it in a box with no padding that had dimensions approximately 60cm x 60cm x 40cm, which is completely inappropriate for such a device. (Fortunately, I had a good case protecting it.) I’ve had friends who, unfortunately, haven’t been as lucky with the things that the IAA has confiscated from them, and it’s extremely difficult to get reimbursed for their mistakes. Complaints get lost or ignored, and a lot of time and energy is wasted on the phone with people who, to say the least, do not show any signs of the ‘service mentality’ you mentioned.

    In short, the US – and the world at large – should absolutely not be looking to Israel for models of airport security. The Israeli system isn’t transferable to more ethnically diverse countries, and it would be illegal in most of them even if it was.

    Liked by 4 people

  9. November 8, 2016 at 3:10 am

    Eiad Shalabne writes it better than me:

    [Facebook post]

    Liked by 1 person

  1. November 7, 2016 at 8:18 am
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