TSA program to turn jumped-up mall cops into mind-readers didn't work

Bruce Schneier commented this morning on the Government Accounting Office's assessment of the TSA's "behavior detection" program, which is like the pick-up artist movement for creepy security agencies. Behavioral detection is a mishmash of pseudoscience, woo-y stuff like neurolinguistic programming, wishful thinking and witch-hunting that holds that you can train squadrons of jumped-up mall-cops to be mind-reading anti-terror ninjas who can look into your eyes and know whether you're a bad guy.

Bruce's post was so great that I just emailed him and said, "Hey, rather than trying to summarize what you wrote, can I just republish it?" And he graciously said yes. Here it is:

Interesting data from the U.S. Government Accounting Office:

But congressional auditors have questions about other efficiencies as well, like having 3,000 "behavior detection" officers assigned to question passengers. The officers sidetracked 50,000 passengers in 2010, resulting in the arrests of 300 passengers, the GAO found. None turned out to be terrorists.

Yet in the same year, behavior detection teams apparently let at least 16 individuals allegedly involved in six subsequent terror plots slip through eight different airports. GAO said the individuals moved through protected airports on at least 23 different occasions.

I don't believe the second paragraph. We haven't had six terror plots between 2010 and today. And even if we did, how would the auditors know? But I'm sure the first paragraph is correct: the behavioral detection program is 0% effective at preventing terrorism.

The rest of the article is pretty depressing. The TSA refuses to back down on any of its security theater measures. At the same time, its budget is being cut and more people are flying. The result: longer waiting times at security.

TSA Behavioral Detection Statistics


  1. I have flown exactly once (okay, twice – round trip) since 9/11, not counting business trips that I couldn’t avoid.

      1. I read with my eyes, and hear with my ears, although sometimes I also feel the things that I hear with my ears, because sound is a form of vibration that may be detected by other means.

  2. Isn’t behaviour detection (or some similar approach) what the Israelis do at their airports (well trained staff asking questions) with fantastic results?

    1. You said it yourself. Well Trained Staff.

      Not Misanthropic sicophantic yes-men with delusions of grandure and a fake badge.

      1. cinerik is exactly right.  In the USA, the job tenure is low for TSA, border-agents, policing, etc., because in our culture we place value on gusto, jingoism and raw musculature.  In other countries, such as Israel, job tenure is high because 1. There are no jobs, like, AT ALL… and 2. training, experience and engagement with the process trump the superficial.
        That said, it doesn’t take much to change someone’s behavior.  Stick an outstretched hand in their face and see how they adjust.  So there is something to be said for NLP and other “mind tricks”… if applied correctly and not taken to ridiculous heights of stupidity.  Doubtful our agencies would be able to pull it off, though.

    2. In Israel, the behavior detection officers have a college degree and typically have a backgrounds in law enforcement, psychology, or a related field.

      Compare this to our TSA high-school graduates, whose main form of literature is pizza boxes….

      I took a class in non-verbal communication when I was an undergrad.  We learned that even very well-trained individuals can barely detect lying based on visual cues more than 50% of the time.  Computers are pretty good at detecting micro-expressions (which are sometimes indicative of lying) , but human beings really stink at it.

      1. Citation please.  The stuff I see out of Oxford indicates that in the laboratory they have a computer vision system that can detect micro-expressions 79% of the time. Good, but not ready for prime time.

        At the same time, I am aware of trials where people have done much better than 50% at detecting lies. If I recall correctly, in at least one of those tests it was the polygraph/operator who scored about 50%. Which leads me to question your ‘well trained can barely detect lying … 50% of the time’. If there has been a study that showed that, I would like to see how it determined ‘well trained’ and what limitations it put on the ‘based on visual cues’ part.

        Good behavioral observation technique includes visual cues, including micro-expressions, but encompasses a lot more.

    3. Isn’t behaviour detection (or some similar approach) what the Israelis do at their airports (well trained staff asking questions) with fantastic results?

      I know it’s often touted by Republicans as the ideal approach, but, I don’t think it’s all that sophisticated. If you’re Jewish, you’re presumed to not want to blow up the plane. If you’re Palestinian, first of all, wow, you managed to earn enough for a trip somewhere in spite of the economic hardships, and second, yeah right, buddy, you’re probably here to blow up the plane, aren’t you?

      In other words, it’s yet another measure, much like “self-deportation” that’s designed to legalize racism by calling it something more pleasant. It’s just “profiling.”

      1. It was actually touted around here a while back, when we were all living the outrage over the x-ray scanners (which, for the record, I’m still living the outrage over and, on the rare occasions I fly, taking the grope-down-opt-out route).  Now, while I’m certainly in favor of highly trained staff performing whatever screening we have, it does seem we’re going to have to opt for technology or intelligence – which do we want.

        Oh, and I’m pretty sure that Israeli airports deal with people from more than two countries!

  3. Since it’s all really just theater it would be cheaper, and arguably more effective, to just dangle a giant pair of truck nuts from the bottom of each airliner.

  4. I am pretty sure you did have at least 6 terror plots. We are not talking about “*successfully* carried out” terror plots, are we? ;-)

    1.  I guess it depends on your definition of “terror plot”. Under many definitions, setting off home-rolled fireworks in your own back yard probably qualifies.

    2. That strikes me as a little bit of backroom dealing between the TSA and GAO:  “Ok, we’ll let you lambast our shitty mind-reading program, but in exchange, we’ll feed you this stat about there being 6 terror plots and you won’t question it, in order to subconsciously remind people that they’re in great danger while flying.”

    3. Probably includes the most common “terror plot” that involves persons who could fly in North America. 

      That is providing funds or material support to questionable agencies overseas, whether or not they are listed as a terrorist agency or supportive of terrorist activity. 

      Be careful what charity you support or you could be a “foiled terrorist plot” the next time you fly too.

    4.  There have been a total of zero plots that could feasibly terrorize a person who is not a puling coward.

  5. I am a little old white lady who prefers loose clothing on long jogs cross country or ocean on planes. Invariably, I  am pulled from the security line due to clothing to be groped by TS employees.  If a trip is to be more than a few hours, a loose dress is always first choice, since tight waist bands, or tight long pants are extremely uncomfortable after a couple of hours sitting. the TS agents (women) who do the grope and feel are always apologetic, while the males who send me out of line to be felt up are almost always smug and nasty beasts. it’s a stupid process. If they are looking psychically for potential wrong doers, they fail miserably in my case, or the cases of children and people in depends or wheelchairs.   

    1.  It might be a show of force to give the illusion that the TSA sees all. “Look, we can grope and manhandle ANYBODY we choose, so you wouldn’t dare try to smuggle something, would you?” That’s probably as scientific as it gets.

      Otherwise, I can’t imagine what. Dumb apes.

    2.  Although I completely agree that you should not have to be harassed in this way, it makes more sense to frisk you and people in wheelchairs than it does to exclusively frisk people of Arab or Muslim persuasions.  As soon as you let one profile go through unmolested, that’s the profile that gets used as mules for weapons, drugs, explosives or other contraband.  And a wheelchair or a pair of baggy sweats can carry a lot of C4!  KGB-style oppressive surveillance has to oppress everyone, or it’s a completely pointless waste of money (did somebody say TSA?).

      But really people just need to remember the words of the old song – “land of the free, home of the brave” and start acting brave and free again.  If we lived up to our own illusions of self, we’d be more concerned about the thousands of people that are still suffering in Bhopal than about the (much smaller) number of people who died on 9/11.  There are only two things worth doing to improve transport security – armor (or eliminate) the door to the cockpit, and allow all non-felon passengers to be armed.

  6. And when something eventually happens, the TSA will say, “It’s because you cut our funding and wouldn’t let us do everything we wanted to do!” When the truth is, no, TSA. It would’ve happened anyway and there was nothing, NOTHING you could’ve done to stop it, especially not feeling up seniors and kids and irradiating everyone else.

    1. There are a lot of people thinking like that, and getting increasingly impatient. Just think of how impatient they’ll be as it gets closer to election season.

        1. I first misread that as “Ronnievision”… I bet that’s a confusion that will get more widespread as the election approaches, too.

          In fact, it might be time to make up a Reagan bingo sheet for Romney speeches. How long until he starts calling the President “Mr.” Obama, and dropping “there you go again” into speeches?

  7. This is why our secret gov. agency is creating occult technology to read our minds with machines? EXCUSES, EXCUSES. 

  8. Hey, FWIW, not sure that’s relevant:  NLP (Natural Language Processing) != NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming).  

  9. I still maintain that everyone should be given a gun with a single round in it upon boarding their aircraft. The gun would not be reloadable without a special key (to prevent a group of hijackers from pooling their “resources”).

    Think about it.

    100 people on the plane with a single round. hijackers would be faced with the potential of any one of 100 people shooting them and no one person could become a threat because they only have enough ammunition for one shot.

    1. Single-use, lightweight plastic shotguns loaded with salt.  Hand ’em out at boarding, collect them at the destination.

  10. While I’m 100% on board with the substance of this article, “behavioral detection” is garbage regardless of who is employing it. TSA policy would be garbage no matter who they hired to implement it. Making a dig at the actual TSA employees, by calling them “jumped-up mall cops” seems like a low blow. No doubt, there are some real doozies amongst the many TSA agents. I have no issue with calling those individuals out for their behavior. But most TSA agents (and frankly, most mall cops I’ve met) are just people doing their job and trying to keep it. It sucks when the rules of your job require you to do something that makes people miserable, but I think it’s important that we keep the focus on the policy, not the bottom of the totem pole who are required to carry out the policy, with absolutely no say in the decision making. The vast majority of us don’t have the option to leave a job based on principle. 

    Note: I’m not a TSA agent, I’m not friends with or related to anyone who is a TSA agent, but more than a few people I know have been out of work for years and are desperate for just about any job right now. 

    1. The vast majority of us don’t have the option to leave a job based on principle.

      That’s false.  You choose not to follow your principles, and while your choices may be worthy of the sympathy of others, unprincipled choices do not deserve any respect, and are an appropriate target for derision.

      I don’t want people to treat me well when I behave badly, although I don’t want them to murder me out of hand, either.

      1. I’m not sure what argument you think I was making but while I don’t think a TSA agent has any choice but to ask you to follow the rules that are imposed by their superiors, I never implied and certainly didn’t say that anyone should treat you unprofessionally or badly. You have as much choice not to fly as many people have not to work at a certain job. It may be possible to but many would find it challenging if not impossible to choose an alternative.

        But my argument is not against calling jerks jerks, it’s being dismissive and rude of someone’s career because you think they are beneath you. Making statements like “jumped-up mall cops” is both rude to mall cops and meant to be rude to TSA agents, regardless of how either performs their job. I don’t walk around making rude comments about people who work making fast food or cleaning toilets because I know it’s work that people do because they have to, to get by. If those same people do the job in a way I consider unethical, I’m happy to call them out on it, but I think it’s rather patronizing to walk around disparaging the job because I have the option not to do it.

  11. We done a lot of work at the Center for Investigative Reporting in Berkeley on the issue of behavioral detection and suspicious activity. The stories included hundreds of pages of documents describing a related security program at the Mall of America. If anyone’s interested. http://www.americaswarwithin.org 

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