It Turns Out the TSA Has No Science in Its Files to Support Behavior Screening

The ACLU asked the TSA for scientific research behind their ‘behavior detection officer’ screen program. It turns out there is none. (HT: @off2paradise)

“The TSA simply has nothing in its files that would suggest that it can validly use these techniques to screen passengers in an unstructured environment like an airport terminal.”

Some of the materials the TSA turned over rely on problematic assumptions. One TSA presentation from 2006, titled “Femme Fatale: Female Suicide Bombers,” says that “females tend to be more emotional and therefore easier to indoctrinate.”

What’s more, you’re not just being watched using pseudo-science in the security line — plain clothes TSA employees are also watching you in the terminal. They’ve had people deployed to check whether you look nervous or have body odor (seriously, that’s apparently one of the signs you may be a terrorist) since 2009.

The TSA’s checklist used in behavior detection training even suggests that if you object to the screening process, that’s a sign you’re a terrorist.

Meanwhile no matter how much security agencies may want to ‘be like Israel’ — the Tel Aviv airport model doesn’t scale. Las Vegas airport handles about 25 million passengers a year. Tel Aviv – the nation’s only major international airport — handles about 18 million. That’s one airport. There are over 350 ‘primary’ commercial airports in the U.S. [those that process over 10,000 enplanments annually].

There’s insufficient science and insufficient training. Presumably recognizing this, the TSA stopped having these Behavior Detection Officers pull people out of the regular screening line to go through PreCheck instead. However they still allowed people identified as safe by dogs to leave the regular screening line — dogs handled by officers who had to interpret what the dogs were saying.

None of this reduces security of course, PreCheck screening is what everyone should be going through.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I know you have a “thing” about the TSA, given the numerous posts over the years, and I don’t want to be put in the position of defending them and all of their action, etc. Your criticism is largely thinly veiled.

    Yet, it leaves me wondering if you think we should have any type of screening and security in our airports and, if so, what it should look like.

  2. @Ron I’ve written extensively on this, aviation security *is* better than it was pre-9/11. Reinforced cockpit doors and a default that passengers would try to take down terrorists rather than remaining docile assuming they could wait out a hijacking safely make a repeat highly unlikely. Nude-o-scopes don’t contribute to security, PreCheck is what everyone should go through, we should split up the regulatory function from the screening function rather than having the same agency doing both — you’d get better security and accountability.

  3. There’s a false claim of ‘no science’ — the TSA document says “females tend to be more emotional,” which is an empirically supported claim in models of personality that include a trait for emotional stability (reverse-coded Neuroticism in the OCEAN/Five Factor model).

    @Gary your cockpit door claim isn’t scientifically supported either, just sounds like common sense, not saying I disagree but you won’t find a citation for it in a refereed journal.

  4. @Gary — oh and the nude-o-scope thing, I hate those as much as you do, but to say they’re useless is again not empirically defensible.

    Nor is your oft-repeated claim that TSA has never caught a terrorist. There’s going to be no way to prove that, but we do have quasi-experimental methods at our disposal. My hunch is a careful study with appropriate causal inference and propensity score analysis yields the conclusion TSA very likely has stopped a terrorist.

  5. @Gary — but yes I agree on PreCheck for all. Let’s eliminate the position of ID and boarding pass checker, too. I want to be able to undergo security screening without ever having to stop in my tracks.

  6. TSA does not have to catch a terrorist to be successful, it merely has to deter terrorists to claim some level ofsuccess. TSA screening may well deter some terrorists simply by adding to the complexity of planning an attack. TSA’s poor training and inconsistencies actually help by adding unexpected options. Organized terrorists prefer predictability. Lone wolf terrorists may not care however.

  7. I would be much more cautious interpreting this report. While it may be true that TSA wants to believe that behavioral screening works, the ACLU wants it not to work. So the ACLU report deserves very careful review before presuming that it is true.

  8. Science/Intelligence and TSA don’t go together (like Iceberg and Titanic).
    Airports should use robots/machines rather than those perverted TSA agents.

  9. @Gary

    Well, I suppose, then, that you would be in favor of allowing someone with a concealed carry permit to board an aircraft with a firearm given that you propose that passengers not be docile. If so, I don’t find that to be unreasonable. It is probably not a coincidence that the terrorists who hijacked the planes on 9/11 did so on flights originating in cities/states without much of a gun ownership culture. (For the record, I’m not a firearm owner.)

  10. @Ron
    Selection of flights had nothing to do with gun ownership. It is known to be based on fuel loads, timing, and proximity to targets.

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