Pseudo-science and airport security


The Pomona College student who was detained by airport security after they found Arabic flashcards in his carry-on luggage was originally pulled aside for questioning because of Screening Passengers by Observation Technique (SPOT), a pseudo-scientific program that's supposed to teach TSA employees how to identify deceptive or hostile behavior in travelers.

Or, rather, SPOT is supposed to help pick out people who are trying to hide their cruel intentions. The pushy, cranky guy behind you in line who's yelling at his kid = no. Sneaky terrorists trying to look innocent = yes.

The problem, of course, is that there's no evidence this system works any better than a lie detector. Which, just to be perfectly clear, means it doesn't work.

"Simply put, people (including professional lie-catchers with extensive experience of assessing veracity) would achieve similar hit rates if they flipped a coin," noted a 2007 report1 from a committee of credibility-assessment experts who reviewed research on portal screening. "No scientific evidence exists to support the detection or inference of future behaviour, including intent," declares a 2008 report prepared by the JASON defence advisory group.

The TSA does track statistics. From the SPOT programme's first phase, from January 2006 through to November 2009, according to the agency, behaviour-detection officers referred more than 232,000 people for secondary screening, which involves closer inspection of bags and testing for explosives. The agency notes that the vast majority of those subjected to that extra inspection continued on their travels with no further delays. But 1,710 were arrested, which the TSA cites as evidence for the programme's effectiveness. Critics, however, note that these statistics mean that fewer than 1% of the referrals actually lead to an arrest, and those arrests are overwhelmingly for criminal activities, such as outstanding warrants, completely unrelated to terrorism.

I'm in favor of reasonable security measures at airports. But, from my perspective, a big part of defining "reasonable" is providing objective evidence that the measure actually does any good.

Nature: Airport security: Intent to deceive?

Image courtesy Flickr user nedrichards, via CC


  1. Profiling based on physical characteristics is pretty damn close to phrenology. We should just pull a Tarot card for each passenger.

  2. Or just ask them.

    “Are you a terrorist?”

    Probably have similarly effective results. Anyone who says “uhhhh.. no?” (compared to a cheerful “nope!”) is clearly a terrorist. And god help you if you answer yes.

  3. Whats the arrest rate for randomly selected travelers?. That’s probably too much work, lets just throw some sciency words together so we can have some PR to justify racial profiling.

  4. Should be simple to test this. Three queues, one screening using SPOT, one screening using a dowsing rod and one screening with coin flips. Crunch that data. The winning strategy is the one we deploy worldwide.


    1. You might have heard about a company called ATSC who made “explosives detectors” that were widely used by Iraqi police at checkpoints, and were expanding to other markets like drug detection in South America…and in at least one case, a school in the USA. The device turned out to be a plastic grip with collapsible car antenna, with a coiled wire running to a belt pack. The pack had a slot that you would slide in a piece of cardboard with printed marks on it to choose the detection substance. No batteries…the user was advised to scuff their feet to power the device. Essentially it is a dowsing rod. Thousands of the devices were sold to law enforcement agencies, at up to $60,000 each. Early this year, the owner of the company was arrested.

      But you know what? The device works about as well as the customers could hope. Security inspectors want to use their instincts to flag people, flawed or accurate as that may be. The devices gave inspectors plausible deniability to search whomever they chose. There is also a psych effect on the people being searched, if they have something contraband and think there’s some detection method aimed at them.

      1. “But you know what? The device works about as well as the customers could hope.”

        Considering how woo-obsessed the Military is, that people selling dowsing rods have actually managed to get themselves arrested by the US and UK shows that the customers are pissed beyond their usual “men who stare at goats” level of pseudoscience. It doesn’t even work on a psychological basis, lie detectors as a part of security background checks serve a different purpose than lie detectors in a physical security screening.

        Just like homeopathy utilized to “cure” cancer, this is a waste of time and resources that causes more harm than good.

      2. Oh my God this is hilarious.

        “I didn’t believe in this device in the first place,” said a police officer at a checkpoint in central Baghdad, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. “I was forced to use it by my superiors and I am still forced to do so.”

        An associate of ATSC, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, said the devices were manufactured at a cost of $250 each by suppliers in Britain and Romania. “Everyone at ATSC knew there was nothing inside the ADE 651,” he said.

        The Iraqi government, according to its auditors, paid $40,000 to $60,000 for each device …

        1. Anon #17, that’s only moderately hilarious compared to this quote from ATSC’s Managing Director, Jim McCormick:

          One of the problems we have is that the machine does look primitive. We are working on a new model that has flashing lights.

          Comedy gold.

      3. There is also a psych effect on the people being searched, if they have something contraband and think there’s some detection method aimed at them.

        I’ve heard of someone in my industry using a similar tactic when presented with an obviously fake ID: she swipes the card through her computer keyboard; it’s just a standard keyboard with no special hardware, she slides it horizontally between two rows of keys and acts all apologetic when telling the person that the computer says it’s fake. From what I’m told nobody has yet had the balls to challenge her.

  5. The solution seems to be flip a coin. I really think there’s potential in this… Especially if TSA let each traveler choose heads or tails!

  6. Well if we really trained them to accurately identify and detain those with intent to deceive we’d keep getting TSA officials pulled aside and interrogated. How inefficient!

  7. I’d like to think that I would never consent to a lie detector test, ‘cuz it’d just be validating some other bogus science.

    Really, we should call their bluff, and keep asking them for the proof that this system works.

  8. The supposed behaviour screening isn’t being done by really smart highly educated psychologists like the (fictional) character on the TV show “Lie to Me”, or even his assistants, it’s being done by run of the mill TSA rent-a-cops, who are generally underpaid Class A gorillas who’ve got just enough training not to bully everybody and who have an apparent policy of lying to passengers if they’re challenged about anything.

    They certainly don’t mind playing us that dishonest video about how the reason we have to take off our shoes is to stop shoe-bombers (it’s not – it was already a policy to keep lines moving because too many shoes have enough metal to set off metal detectors) and most of the TSA employees probably even believe it.

    1. “Lie to Me” truly is the “CSI” of behavioral analysis. It’s based on real experts but so far in left field you expect them to use a computer to “Enhance… Enhance”. There are indeed people who can spot deception, but they are experts who have trained years to get as good as they are. TSA monkeys do not have this skill.

  9. This is just more placebo security: harass the travelling public so that they are convinced that Something Is Being Done and they not afraid to fly.

    1. “This is just more placebo security: harass the travelling public so that they are convinced that Something Is Being Done and they not afraid to fly.”

      Exactly. It’s security theater, not security.

    2. “This is just more placebo security: harass the travelling public so that they are convinced that Something Is Being Done and they not afraid to fly.”
      Unless, god held you, you’re of vaguely middle eastern appearance.

  10. Weigh all passengers. If they weigh the same as a duck, then they are made of wood and therefore terrorists.

  11. @Anon

    Polygraphs don’t work very well in security background checks, either. I personally know several people who have passed them despite being serious security risks, as well as people who have failed them despite being squeaky clean. Successfully passing a polygraph exam has nothing to do with whether or not you’re lying.

  12. Last time I travelled through Dulles, I was pulled over with two other gentlemen for special attention. I was travelling on official business with a NATO Travel Order. The guy in front of me was a US Army officer travelling with his army ID card. And the third guy was a diplomat travelling on a diplomatic passport. All three of us were of “non muslim appearance”. Go figure.

  13. Last time I flew threw Heathrow, I had my clearly-marked eczema meds tested for explosives.

  14. If you fix the error in your title, Maggie, it all makes so much more sense:

    Pseudo-science and airport security theater

    There, “fixed that for you,” as the meme goes. :D

    Anyone notice where that cop on the right of the picture is extending her/his right arm? And is that a magnifying glass or a speculum? Uncomfortable lols abounding!

  15. Group one: their technique
    Group two: strictly random search using random number generator

    compare arrest ratios.

    Gee whiz,how they fail at basic science.

  16. I flew last week. My bags were too heavy so I had to remove a parka just to get my bags under the weight limit. Then I wore the parka because my carry ons were full. Then the TSA monkey pulled me aside and sited my parka as ‘suspicious’ given how hot it was. Nevermind that I didn’t set off any metal detectors. When I told him laughingly that it was to get under the weight limit of the check-in luggage he further accused me of being suspicious and that I should ‘watch it.’

    TSA could be short for so many things… like maybe
    Time Sucking Asshats?

  17. Some individuals really are much better than most people at both noticing and evaluating non verbal communication. This has been demonstrated in many psychological and neurological studies.

    What is even better? These people can improve with training!

    Unfortunately, a significant portion of candidates for the job of TSA screener fall into groups of people who, for various developmental reasons, have brains that will never be good at doing this particular job.

    Failure of TSA leadership to adapt their hiring practices to this fact results in incidents with these unhappily employed screeners.

    Why are very skilled people not specifically recruited and teamed-up with somewhat-skilled screeners to mentor.

    The unskilled should find other work, not secure their job forever through the SEUI.

  18. To benher #23: Someone wearing a parka in warm weather is one of the most obvious signs of being a suicide bomber. If there is a list of things to look for, it is probably in the top five. I wasn’t there, but it sounds like the cop quickly concluded you weren’t a threat and may have been letting you know why he had to bother you.

    1. Wow, I guess in retrospect it should have been obvious. It really didn’t occur to me… I also paired it with shorts and flip-flops… but don’t all young boys enjoy baggy clothes blowing in the breeze?

      I suppose I was unduly pissed off given that it was super hot, I didn’t want to pay a baggage fee, and that even after I got my luggage under the weight restrictions, it was ‘lost’ for 3 days – the reason cited as ‘the plane was too heavy to load your luggage.’

  19. It may be that any kind of foreign language materials can be a considered suspect in the TSA handbook. A few years ago, I was going through security, and a TSA drone did a secondary screening. They found a Richard Scarry picture book in my bag and saw that the text of the book was in a foreign language. It was a Lithuanian edition, a gift from grandma to grandchild. They eyed it suspiciously, and I explained it wasn’t one of those “terrorist” languages. Not enough snark to earn a trip to Gitmo, but enough for them to dig through the bag even more enthusiastically.

  20. A ‘lie detector’ works perfectly if employed within the appropriate paradigm, the ‘guilty knowledge test’.

  21. I love the TSA and its checkpoints. it’s so lovely to see the reaction of privileged, normally white, normally male, people experiencing life for a few brief minutes, in a safe space, without privilege.

    and – they get to bitch about it afterwards on the internet. oh the humanity!

    but, sometimes, just sometimes, such priceless comedy gold for everyone else in the queue.

    1. Did you miss the part where so many of them bemoan that Middle Eastern folk have it worse? White priveledge at its finest, that.

  22. I haven’t been the same since my daughter and I were stopped at the check-in because her name was (mistakenly) on the no-fly list, and when I started to ask how this could happen, a well-meaning official said: “Don’t ask questions. It makes you look guilty.”

    And that’s why I prefer to write about the old America.

  23. Less than 1% is the arrest rate? Even lie detector is better than 1%

    Heck, letting a drunk weasel with a pick axe do security is gonna get you better than 1%

    1. If we got to see weasels with axes I would start flying again. Bring it on!

      How about I just show up to the airport in flipflops and a speedo and send my luggage separately by UPS?

  24. Anyone who thinks this is about racial profiling would be wrong. Also, it’s not really pseudoscience – behavioral analysis is well established.

    The problem is that the SPOT program uses uneducated personnel, observation from a distance and really just about as much accuracy as throwing dice.
    For real “SPOT”, look at El Al, who have been profiling their passengers for years and years, and despite being the airline with the highest terrorism risk out there (if you know El Al, you know why) they haven’t been hit since the 70’s. Those guys even found out that a lady travelling to the ME was carrying a bomb without herself knowing it, just by questioning and observing.

    The TSA is a good thing, by and large, but SPOT is a huge waste of time and money.

  25. Dude!, I know it sounds like guess work, but… here in Israel (yeha, we know some terrorists) is THE system, and it has been so since I’ve been here =30 years.
    not only here, but also on foreign airports having flights to Tel Aviv. (mainly elal)

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