I spy with my little eye: TSA rolling out new ‘behavior detection officers’

C.J. Ciaramella Contributor
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Passengers flying through Boston’s Logan International Airport will notice the security screeners are chattier than usual, but it’s not an improved customer service policy.

On Tuesday the Transportation Security Administration began a test-run at Logan of its SPOT program, which stands for Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques. SPOT uses trained screeners known as Behavior Detection Officers (BDOs) to determine if passengers are a threat, based on their reactions to a set of routine questions.

“The vast majority of passengers will experience a casual greeting conversation with the BDO as they go through identity verification,” a TSA spokesperson said. “A small portion of passengers may get selected for an extended, but still limited conversation.”

According to the Boston Herald, the BDOs will ask three to four questions — from “Where have you been?” to “Do you have a business card?” and “Where are you traveling?” — while looking for minute facial cues that may indicate deception or malicious intent.

Since its creation in 2007, TSA’s SPOT program has grown almost fifteen-fold. As of May 2010, about 3,000 BDOs were deployed at 161 airports nationwide at an annual cost of more than $200 million.

So far, after three years of operation and almost $1 billion spent, SPOT has never been scientifically proven effective and has never caught one actual terrorist.

TSA said it will evaluate the pilot program at Logan and its impact on security and screening operations to determine how the agency will proceed. (RELATED: LaHood urges Congress to pass FAA funding extension)

According to information provided by TSA to Nature magazine, BDOs referred more than 232,000 people for secondary screening during the SPOT program’s first phase, from January 2006 through to November 2009. Secondary screening involves closer inspection of bags and testing for explosives.

The vast majority of those subjected to extra inspection continued with no further delays. But 1,710 were arrested, which the TSA points to as evidence of the program’s effectiveness.

In other words, less than 1 percent of referrals lead to an arrest. And most arrests were for criminal activity, such as outstanding warrants or illegal citizenship status. One man was arrested in 2008 after BDOs stopped him at Orlando International Airport while he was carrying explosive components. In 2007 TSA stopped another man who was carrying a loaded handgun at Baltimore-Washington International.

But whether SPOT’s behavioral analysis techniques are actually effective — or simply playing the odds — has never been independently confirmed.

TSA said it is currently working on “an independent and comprehensive review of the ongoing SPOT study to be conducted in support of and in collaboration with the TSA SPOT program.”

“The assessment includes input from other federal agencies with expertise in behavior detection and relevant subject matter experts,” a TSA spokesperson said. The Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate, he added, “is working with TSA to present the SPOT validation project to an independent panel of experts, produce a report summarizing the panel’s recommendations and implement pertinent suggestions.”

But TSA has been criticized for trying validate its program after the fact. In a two-year review of the program released in 2010, the Government Accountability Office knocked TSA for deploying SPOT “without first validating the scientific basis for identifying suspicious passengers in an airport environment.”

The GAO found SPOT was more effective than random screening at catching individuals with fraudulent documents, but noted that additional work is needed to fully validate the program. The Department of Homeland Security’s own internal study was not designed to validate whether behavior detection can be used to reliably identify security risks.

The SPOT program is based partially on the work of psychologist Paul Ekman, a pioneer in the field of behavioral analysis. Elkman’s specific expertise centers on identifying minute facial cues — so-called “micro-expressions” — that indicate a person may be lying. In addition to consulting with the TSA, Ekman has worked with the CIA, FBI and other law enforcement agencies.

Other psychologists, however, have been critical of Ekman’s work. A 2007 study conducted by a committee of credibility-assessment experts concluded: “Simply put, people (including professional lie-catchers with extensive experience of assessing veracity) would achieve similar hit rates if they flipped a coin.”

Nevertheless, Ekman has taught about 1,000 TSA screeners and continues to consult on the program.

The methodology used in SPOT has never been subjected to controlled scientific tests. Part of the problem is that Ekman and the TSA haven’t disclosed the specific cues used to identify potential threats, citing security reasons. In fact, Ekman has largely stopped publishing, saying he doesn’t want to provide any help to terrorists trying to game the system.

The SPOT program has drawn comparisons with, and is indeed modeled on, Israeli airport security. Israel has the strictest airport security procedures in the world, involving intense screening and passenger interrogation.  But there is a massive difference in scale between the transportation systems of Israel and the United States.

Israel’s only major international airport, Ben Gurion International, handled 12 million passengers in 2010. By comparison, U.S. airports handled about 619 million airline passengers in 2010 — more than 66 million at Chicago’s O’Hare International alone.

In any case, SPOT is only growing. For fiscal year 2011, the Obama administration requested $232 million for the program.