There’s no evidence that the TSA’s list of “suspicious behaviors” — including yawning, whistling, staring, and complaining about security too much — actually help spot terrorists, a new federal report finds.
Security lines are a familiar and dreaded part of modern air travel for some 2 million passengers daily, conducted by Transportation Security Administration screeners at 440 airports nationwide, with shoes, belts, and laptops offered up for X-ray screening. Among the luggage screeners are some 2,400 “Behavior Detection Officers” trained to look for odd behavior indicators — too much luggage, throat clearing, and much more — from passengers in those lines, pulling them aside for more screening.
“According to TSA, such indicators provide a means for identifying passengers who may pose a risk to aviation security,” notes the US Government Accountability Office report, which analyzed the 178 sources that the security agency pointed to as offering scientific support for its $186 million behavior-detection program.
"TSA does not have valid evidence that most of the indicators in its revised list of behavioral indicators can be used to identify individuals who may pose a threat to aviation security," the report concludes.
The GAO analysis “found that 98 percent (175 of 178) of the sources do not provide valid evidence” and only one behavior (left unidentified in the report) has two research articles that offer support for it being a suspicious thing to do at the airport.
Despite the report’s damning findings, it appears unlikely to change the TSA’s operations.
“While we respect the opinions of our GAO colleagues, TSA remains steadfast in the effectiveness of behavior detection and committed to training our officers in these widely used techniques,” TSA spokesperson James Gregory told BuzzFeed News by email.
In 2008, for example, behavior detection officers at the Orlando airport flagged a passenger for acting suspiciously (“he wouldn't look at anyone directly,” according to a news report), and wound up discovering pipe bomb materials and a blue liquid that tested positive for TNT in his luggage.
“Behavior detection capabilities are an important piece of our layered approach to deter, detect, and identify adversaries,” Gregory said.
The GAO noted that the TSA has been winding down its support for the behavior detection program since a critical 2013 report, and called for that to continue.
“The scientific consensus in the field is that judging deception based on behavioral observations is inherently highly prone to error,” psychologist Maria Hartwig of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York told BuzzFeed News by email. “The continued use of [behavior detection officers] seems like a very poor use of tax money to me.”
Overall, just looking for weird behavior doesn’t seem very effective as a security strategy, psychologist Chris Meissner of Iowa State University told BuzzFeed News. A recent experiment comparing trained police officers against untrained civilians in trying to detect a concealed handgun on passersby, based on their behavior, found no difference in their detection abilities. Simply talking to people seems to be more effective.
And that’s exactly what the TSA program was originally intended to do, said former TSA official Carl Maccario of the Center of Nonverbal Communication, who helped start the BDO program in 2004.
“The program was never designed to catch liars or terrorists, just to identify unusual behavior against the established baseline of how people behave in security lines,” said Maccario, who left the agency in 2015. “And then you were supposed to talk to them carefully. Where that went off the rails, I don’t know.”
Civil liberties advocates have raised questions about racial and religious bias in the behavior detection program as well. A February ACLU report criticized plainclothes security officers scrutinizing passengers without their knowledge. The TSA has integrated its behavior detection corps into the rest of the luggage screening workforce in recent years, partly because of the crush of increased air travel as the economy has picked up steam.
At the bottom of it all, criticism of the behavior detection program partly reflects simple fatigue among airline passengers with standing in line at the airport, Maccario said, and anxiety about the possibility of more screening.
The 9/11 attacks were 16 years ago, and people have largely forgotten the anxiety over hijacking they felt at the time of airport screening's start, Maccario said. "It's a thankless job."
Maria Hartwig's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this post.
Dan Vergano is a science reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Dan Vergano at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.