Here's How The TSA Is Profiling You — And Why It's Scientifically Bogus
A recent lawsuit and leaked documents have scientists reeling over how the TSA is using junk science to screen for terrorists. “We are all horrified,” one scientist said.
Yawning. Excessive bobbing of the Adam's apple. Strong body odor. Whistling. A "face pale from recent shaving of beard."
These are signs that someone in an airport security line might be a terrorist, according to a Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) checklist leaked to The Intercept last Friday.
The list is reportedly part of a program called Screening Passengers by Observation Technique (SPOT), which the TSA has been using in airports since 2007. The document, leaked to The Intercept by "a source concerned about the quality of the program," is the only public source of details about how the agency tries to spot potential terrorists, despite years of requests by scientific and legal experts concerned about the program's legitimacy.
The leak comes just a week after the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed suit against the TSA for failing to provide them with information about the program's methods, training materials, and scientific validity, which the organization had requested in a Freedom of Information Act filing last October.
"We thought, we could sit around waiting or we could take them to court," Hugh Handeyside, staff attorney at the ACLU National Security Project, told BuzzFeed News. "Our fundamental problem is we don't think that [screening] can actually be done in any way without raising an unacceptable risk of racial profiling."
The TSA denies that SPOT leads to racial profiling. But detractors say that for nearly a decade the TSA has shrouded the program in secrecy, all while claiming its behavior-detection techniques are supported by science.
The scientific community, meanwhile, has been sharply critical of these methods for years. And the recently leaked checklist has them more concerned than ever.
"The chatter in the community is basically, we are all horrified," Charles Honts, a professor of psychology at Boise State University who specializes in lie detection, told BuzzFeed News. "It's even worse than we thought it was. These behaviors have no established links to deception whatsoever."
TSA has spent well over $1 billion on SPOT, but the program has yet to catch a terrorist.
In 2014, the program had more than 3,000 "behavior detection" officers deployed at 176 of the roughly 450 TSA-regulated airports in the U.S., according to a federal report.
The 92-point checklist revealed by The Intercept is divided into categories designed to assess fear, stress, and deception. Each suspicious behavior has a point score assigned to it. Yawning, for example, docks one point, while a "cold, penetrating stare" loses two, and repeatedly patting your upper body deducts three. Being part of a married couple, however, gives you two back.
As behavioral detection officers observe your facial expressions and body language at the security checkpoint, anything above a score of 6 gets you pulled over for interrogation with law enforcement. TSA claims to be able to tally a person's final score within 30 seconds.
But many leading psychologists argue that there are few, if any, consistent behavioral cues linked to lying, let alone in such a brief amount of time in an environment as chaotic as an airport security line. Given this lack of evidence, they say, the TSA's program could be license for racial profiling.
"You cannot eliminate the unconscious bias we all have — or the conscious bias some of us have -- when making hasty judgments about people," said Handeyside.
SPOT is largely based on the work of Paul Ekman, a psychologist who first gained acclaim for creating a catalogue of hundreds of subtle facial expressions. Ekman argued that each "microexpression" represented a specific emotion that could be "read" by a trained observer. Initially, according to Honts, psychologists lauded Ekman's work.
When his research first appeared, in the late 1970s, Ekman made clear that the approach would only work if evaluators could scrutinize the tiny facial movements, carefully and repeatedly, from a taped interview of the person in question. But soon his research was being widely courted by the FBI, the CIA, and state and local police forces. His studies were featured in Malcolm Gladwell's Blink and a fictionalized TV show called Lie to Me, and got him a consulting gig with Pixar to bring the characters' facial expressions to life.
Ekman did not respond to interview requests from BuzzFeed News. Despite his popular — and financial — success, Ekman's more recent work with the TSA has not been received positively among the scientific community.
"It has never been demonstrated that people can look at faces in a chaotic environment like an airport and read deception," Honts, the lie-detection expert, said. Many of the more mundane behaviors, he added, could be easily isolated in anyone experiencing the stress of air travel.
Aldert Vrij, a psychology professor at Portsmouth University and head of the European consortium of Psychological Research on Deception Detection, strongly agreed. "There is no empirical research available showing that [facial] expressions are an effective tool to detect deceit in any context," whether in or out of an airport, Vrij said in an email to BuzzFeed News.
These criticisms have been made repeatedly and widely, even from outside of the scientific community.
A 2013 Government Accountability Office report looked at more than 400 studies on deception detection and concluded that the ability of human observers to spot a lie based on behavioral indicators is "the same as or better than chance." The report concluded by saying that until TSA could prove its program was up to scratch scientifically, it should limit its funding for the program.
A TSA spokesperson declined to comment for BuzzFeed News on whether the checklist was actually used in the agency's program, but noted that "the program is designed to detect individuals who exhibit anomalous behaviors indicating they fear discovery and may pose a risk to aviation security."
But this approach, many worry, too easily leads to racial profiling. In 2012 several TSA behavior detection officers from Logan International Airport in Boston told the New York Times that passengers were overtly selected for being Middle Eastern, Black, or Hispanic. These officers estimated that more than 80% of passengers searched at the airport were minorities.
But, as the ACLU's Handeyside points out, the agency doesn't collect any data on the racial makeup of who gets pulled aside for screening. "They are able to plead ignorance of those statistics," Handeyside said. "We find that incredibly problematic."