TSA Behavior Detection Program Lacks Validation

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has been using a behavior detection system that lacks scientific validation in US airports in attempts to spot suspicious behavior, congressional investigators said Thursday.
Indeed, TSA’s Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program is not alone in its lack of validation, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said in its report, Aviation Security: Efforts to Validate TSA’s Passenger Screening Behavior Detection Program Underway, but Opportunities Exist to Strengthen Validation and Address Operational Challenges.
According to the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, no scientific consensus exists to validate the use of behavioral detection for countering terrorist activity, the GAO report said.
Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), who requested the GAO report, called a press conference Thursday morning to condemn TSA as a "bloated, ineffective bureaucracy."
"GAO’s report confirms that TSA has bungled the development and deployment of a potentially important layer of aviation security," Mica said in a statement.  "Other countries, such as Israel, successfully employ behavior detection techniques at their airports, but the bloated, ineffective bureaucracy of TSA has produced another security failure for US transportation systems."
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is working to validate some aspects of the SPOT program, although it rolled out SPOT starting in October 2003 without validating principles for uncovering terrorists through behavior detection, the GAO report noted.
To strengthen the SPOT program, GAO recommended that TSA assemble an independent panel of experts to validate SPOT, improve SPOT data collection and analysis, and plan measures for SPOT that focus more on outcomes. TSA should further make best use of TSA’s full resources to identify threats in airports in addition to taking other actions, the report added.
Under SPOT, TSA employs behavior detection officers (BDOs) to seek suspicious people at US airport checkpoints based on their behavior and appearance.
TSA acknowledged that no such large-scale screening program using behavioral detection ever has been validated scientifically, the report noted. DHS plans to examine whether behavior detection is more effective than random screening but current DHS plans do not address the question of whether behavior detection is reliable for singling out individuals who could be terrorists or criminals.
"For example, factors such as the length of time BDOs can observe passengers without becoming fatigued are not part of the plan and could provide additional information on the extent to which SPOT can be effectively implemented," the report stated. "Prior GAO work has found that independent expert review panels can provide comprehensive, objective reviews of complex issues. Use of such a panel to review DHS’s methodology could help ensure a rigorous, scientific validation of SPOT, helping provide more assurance that SPOT is fulfilling its mission to strengthen aviation security."
Moreover, TSA has problems supporting SPOT. The agency does not fully make use of its resources to systemically collect and analyze behavioral data, the report concluded. The TSA Transportation System Operations Center could investigate aviation threats but presently does not run checks of all available law enforcement and intelligence databases to match any records to individuals identified by BDOs.
"Utilizing existing resources would enhance TSA’s ability to quickly verify passenger identity and could help TSA to more reliably ‘connect the dots,’" the report asserted.
BDOs also have no means to enter any data they collect on suspicious individuals into a database so that TSA analysts could study the data, the report found. They further have no direct connection to the TSA Transportation System Operations Center, which would provide them with timely information on suspicious individuals.
TSA responded that it is addressing such needs but the agency does not have a schedule for providing these capabilities to all BDOs.
TSA’s lack of outcome-oriented measures to assess SPOT’s performance makes it difficult to judge the effectiveness of the program, the report added.
"Establishing a plan to develop these measures could better position TSA to determine if SPOT is contributing to TSA’s strategic goals for aviation security," the report said. "TSA is planning to enhance its evaluation capabilities in 2010 to more readily assess the program’s effectiveness by conducting statistical analysis of data related to SPOT referrals to law enforcement and associated arrests."
TSA has deployed 3,000 BDOs to more than 100 of the 457 airports guarded by the agency.
Mica wrote to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano Thursday to slam SPOT as a failure, citing figures that indicate 17 known terrorists, including Times Square bombing suspect Faisal Shahzad, have traveled through eight SPOT airports in 23 separate instances.
SPOT statistics produced by GAO show 2 billion passengers have traveled through all SPOT airports since the start of the program. BDOs selected 150,000 for secondary screening and referred 14,000 to law enforcement agencies, resulting in the arrest of 1,100. None were arrested for terrorism, the report said.
By contrast, Israel has established a successful behavior detection model, Mica argued. Israeli El Al Airlines uses a behavior detection program where security officers directly interact with passengers instead of observing them from a distance. All staff at El Al Airlines receive training in behavior detection techniques so they can observe passenger behavior throughout the airport and not only at passenger checkpoints.
Failed TSA administrator nominee Robert Harding, a retired Army general, endorsed the use of the Israeli behavior detection model in his confirmation hearings earlier this year. Harding later withdraw after critics raised ethics questions about his dealings with the Defense Department in the private sector.

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