TSA Screening Policies Work Little Better than Chance

A new study conducted by the Government Accountability Office confirms what the vast majority of Americans could have told you without thinking: the TSA’s behavioral screening program, SPOT, is not effective in singling out real threats to airline safety.

The report cites both recent and decades-old research that “found that the human ability to accurately identify deceptive behavior based on behavioral indicators is the same as or slightly better than chance.” In other words, the TSA’s policy of singling out “suspicious-looking” travelers works about as well as singling out travelers in a completely random fashion.

All travelers in American airports are subjected to some of the most intrusive and degrading “security measures” in the world: pat-downs, x-ray voyeurism, clothing removal, and the rest. On top of this, some travelers who “look suspicious” are singled out for even more “safety” procedures.

This study, which really tells us nothing new, establishes concretely that the indicators TSA officials have relied on are fallible to the point of uselessness. Many travelers look nervous and act erratically because they are nervous for any number of legitimate and completely harmless reasons: they are afraid they’ll miss their flight, they don’t like being groped, or the atmosphere at the TSA checkpoints is nerve-wracking, just to name a few.

What the TSA is going to do about this GAO study, and so many others like it, is unclear. They have acknowledged that their policies should change, but just how they will change no one knows. As it is, the TSA has spent nearly a billion dollars on training TSA personnel to implement behavioral analyses. The report recommends that the civil government withhold funding for these programs until the TSA can prove the programs are worthwhile.

I would imagine that means the TSA will find some other way to spend the money, perhaps even ask for more funding to find a more effective way to violate our privacy and personal space. We couldn’t just cut the budget for the TSA. For one, that would make too much financial sense. And if you need another reason … terrorism!