Matt Freeman DNP, MPH
It was mid-morning on a Saturday. I had only hand luggage, and had checked in online the day before. I arrived at the small airport exactly one hour before departure. I was a bit annoyed that the flight was delayed, but otherwise not expecting too much trouble. It was a 90-minute flight on a 70-seat regional jet. Only one other flight, also a small regional jet, was departing from the same section of the airport.
By my best estimate, there were 80 passengers in line for the security checkpoint. Most seemed to be leisure travelers: families with little kids, older adults. There was an abundance of sunburn and golf shirts.
The queue inched along. As I looked around, anxiety was escalating. There was a lot of chatter about missing flights; several people were in tears knowing that they would certainly have their travel plans fall into disarray.
Twelve Transportation Security Administration (TSA) staff were working: one checking identity cards, two on either side of the x-ray machine, one operating the metal detector, seven chatting with each other, and one walking his way through the increasingly antsy crowd.
“What is the province of your destination?” He asked the woman next to me.
“Yes, which province? British Columbia? Ontario?”
Confused, the woman replied, “I’m going to Houston. I don’t know what province that’s in.”
The TSA agent scoffed. He moved on to the next passenger. “The same question for you, ma’am. What is the province of your destination?”
The woman didn’t speak, handing over her driver’s license and boarding card, assuming that was what he wanted. He stared back with disdain.
There are no flights from this airport to Canada.
When it was my turn, I volunteered, “I’m going to Texas, not Canada.”
“What are the whereabouts of your luggage?” He asked.
“Their whereabouts? My bag is right here next to me.”
“Yes, what are its whereabouts?”
“It’s right here.”
“And that’s its whereabouts?”
This was seeming like a grammatical question.
“And about its contents? Are you aware of them?”
“Yes,” I replied, quizzically.
He moved on.
I missed my flight. The woman next to me met the same fate. She cried. I cringed. We pleaded with the airline agent for clemency. The plane pushed back from the gate with many passengers waiting to be asked about the whereabouts of their belongings or their province of destination.
The agent asking the strange questions and delaying the flights was a part of “SPOT.”
The SPOT Program
In 2006, the TSA introduced “SPOT: Screening Passengers by Observational Techniques.” The concept was to identify nonverbal indicators that a passenger was engaged in foul play. Two years after the program started, the US Government Accounting Office (GAO) declared that, “no scientific evidence exists to support the detection of or inference of future behavior, including intent.”
The absence of evidence did not dissuade the TSA. Neither did another study in 2013, in which the GAO reported, “the human ability to accurately identify deceptive behavior based on behavioral indicators is the same as or slightly better than chance.”
The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the TSA, has its doubts as well. The DHS inspector general reported in 2013 described the SPOT as follows: “[We] cannot ensure that passengers at United States airports are screened objectively, show that the program is cost-effective, or reasonably justify the program’s expansion.” It is now three years since that statement, but the TSA is still playing the game, aware that they have no data nor agency backup to support their efforts.
SPOT is expensive too. The GAO reported that the program has cost more than $900 million since its inauguration. That is just the cost of training staff and operating the program, not the costs incurred by delayed or detained passengers.
The “Science” Behind Behavioral Techniques
The SPOT program was developed by multiple sources, but there is one most prominent psychologist in the field: Paul Ekman PhD.
Ekman published Emotion in the Human Face, which demonstrated that six basic human emotions: anger, sadness, fear, happiness, surprise, and disgust, are universally expressed on the human face. Ekman had travelled to New Guinea to show that facial expressions did not vary across geography or culture.
Ekman’s theory was undisputed for 20 years until Lisa Feldman Barrett PhD showed that Ekman’s research required observes to select from the list of six emotions. When observers were asked to analyze emotions without a list, there was some reliability in the recognition of happiness and fear. The other emotions could not be distinguished.
When confronted with skepticism from scientists, Ekman declined to release the details of his research for peer review. Ekman claims that his work is on the radar of scientists from China, Iran, and Syria, so it would be dangerous for him to disclose his findings. I guess I should not publish here that the atomic weight of hydrogen is 1.008 atomic mass units. Syrians could find out! Everyone, hide your physics and chemistry textbooks!
Charles Honts PhD attempted to replicate Ekman’s findings at the University of Utah. No dice. Ekman’s “secret” findings could not be replicated. Maria Hartwig PhD, a psychologist at City University of New York’s John Jay College of Friminal Justice, described Ekman’s work as, “a leap of gargantuan dimensions not supported by scientific evidence.”
The TSA’s own adaptation of Ekman’s work into SPOT is scientifically challenging because it can only be tested on those pretending to be terrorists. In other words, any attempt at scientific application of SPOT evaluation is based on those who are already engaged in deception. Even Ekman himself describes the TSA’s testing of his research as “totally bogus.”
Maybe I can boil this down: we have a psychologist whose research was refuted. And even the defamed psychologist has argued that the TSA’s application of his already dubious evidence is “bogus.”
When asked directly, a TSA analyst pointed to the work of David Givens PhD, an anthropologist and author. Givens has published popular works on body language, but Givens explained that the TSA did not specify which elements of his own theories were adopted by the TSA, and the TSA never asked him.
The TSA’s Response
When asked for statistics, TSA analyst Carl Maccario cited one anecdote of a passenger who was “rocking back and forth strangely,” and was later found to have been carrying fuel bottles that contained flammable materials. The TSA described these items as, “the makings of a pipe bomb,” but there was no evidence that the passenger was doing anything other than carrying a dangerous substance in his hand luggage. There was nothing to suggest that he planned to hurt anyone.
A single anecdote is not research, and this was a weak story at best.
When the GAO investigated further, they analyzed the data of 232,000 passengers who were identified by “behavioral detection” as cause for concern. Of the 232,000, there were 1,710 arrests. These arrests were mostly due to outstanding arrest warrants, and there is no evidence that any were ever linked to terrorist activity.
What Criteria Are Used in the SPOT Program?
In 2015, The Intercept published the TSA’s worksheet for behavioral detection officers.
I was obviously in deep trouble.
“Stress Factors” (one point for each)
- Avoids eye contact with security personnel (why do I need to make eye contact?)
- Excessive clock watching (yep; it was getting late.)
- Face pale from recent shaving of beard (I shaved that morning.)
“Fear Factors” (two points for each)
- Constantly looking at other travelers or associates (People were crying. Why would I not be looking around to see what was going on? Was I supposed to stare straight ahead? Nope. Can’t do that; staring also racks up points on the worksheet.)
- Scans area, appearing to look for security personnel (I was wondering why they weren’t working.)
“Deception Factors” (three points for each)
- Appears to be confused and disoriented (I was asked bizarre questions that required clarification)
I earned eight points, which assigned me to the highest risk category. If one followed the paperwork, I should have been referred for extensive screening and law enforcement was to be notified.
It would have been hard to find passengers in the line who did not exceed five points required to warrant a referral for additional screening.
Considering that the criteria include yawning, whistling, a subjectively fast “eye blink rate,” “strong body odor” and head turning, just about everyone reaches the SPOT threshold.
Mercifully, I was sent on to the screaming TSA agent at the metal detector and the man who was angry that I did not have a laptop. I was spared further scrutiny.
The Risk of Scoring
Looking past the absence of evidence, there are further problems with the SPOT worksheet. “Scored” decisions can detract common sense. For example, I have often lectured on suicide assessment. There are several analysis tools to help a clinician determine if a patient should be admitted to the hospital or allowed to go home. I always teach, “whatever you do, do not assign a score.” This offers a false sense of security without real clinical application. It doesn’t matter if a patient only gets a five out of 20 if he takes his own life after you discharge him or her.
The Fourth and Fifth Amendments
The Fourth Amendment protects Americans from “unreasonable” search and seizure. But airport security falls under the category of a “consent search,” which is voluntary. The Fourth Amendment does not apply because the search is conducted outside the setting of an arrest, and the passenger has “consented” to a TSA search.
- The courts ruled that a passenger consents to inspection either by presenting his or her identification and boarding card to the TSA, or by placing his or her belongings on an x-ray conveyor belt. The SPOT interviews take place before either of these steps, when passengers have not yet entered the TSA’s “custodial” area.
- The extent and detail of the search is not explicit. A reasonable passenger would have the expectation that he or she will be subject to some form of inspection of their hand luggage, a metal detector, or a full body scanner. Is it reasonable to assume that passengers can expect to be interviewed?
What about the Fifth Amendment? Since the Bill of Rights does not apply at the checkpoint, a passenger could easily self-incriminate.
- TSA staff are not law enforcement officers and have no powers of arrest. But they use the term “officer” and wear badges. (This has been subject to controversy by bona fide law enforcement officers.) The notion of a “consent search” is by no means explicit at any checkpoint.
Conducting an interview with the appearance of a law enforcement role exploits a loophole. There is no Fourth Amendment because the interview is not conducted by a law enforcement officer. There is no right to an attorney, no right to remain silent because the interviewer merely has the appearance of a police officer.
The bottom line: the TSA is not actually law enforcement but they do have the power to prevent a passenger from boarding an airplane. One has to submit to SPOT investigation in order to fly. Even if one has not even begun the screening process on constitutional grounds, and even if the nature of one’s consent is by no means informed.
Above all, the “search”—the interview—has not been shown to be any better than chance alone at detecting a dangerous passenger.
My friend Grace is a great physician. She is a warm, brilliant, and talented colleague. We have been friends for decades. She grew up in the Midwest to all-American parents. She has an amazing sense of humor and a charming personality.
Grace went to visit her parents in Michigan, and flew there without incident. On her way home, a SPOT agent saw her in line at the entrance to the security checkpoint.
She was pulled aside, taken to a separate room, and interviewed by two TSA staff with seemingly meaningless questions. Her boarding card had not been flagged; she was taken out of line before she had even entered the screening area.
She missed her flight.
Rattled and confused, Grace called and asked what could have happened. We agreed that she was a target for several reasons: attractive, thereby capturing the interest of male TSA agents, who could have her alone in a room and get to know her. And we agreed that she was “low-hanging fruit:” someone who would be articulate enough to answer questions, unlikely to unleash anger, and unlikely to question the TSA’s judgment.
The TSA denies that SPOT agents have a quota to follow. But SPOT agents have stated that they were under the impression that a promotion was more likely if they pulled more passenger aside.
This was not about security, not quite in line with a “consent search,” and really had to do with either getting a promotion or perhaps scoring a date.
SPOT Around the World
Since the 1980s, the US Government has required US air carriers to conduct profiling techniques for flights destined to the United States. This applies to flights form designated “higher risk” points of origin: anywhere mostly Europe, South America, and the Middle East.
Using techniques comparable to the SPOT program, security contractors conduct interviews at the check-in counter and boarding gates. Many European carriers use the same system for flights from the developing world to Europe.
The largest contractor, ICTS, and its affiliates, claim to follow an Israeli model of threat detection: behavioral analysis. The company was founded by Israeli security “experts,” and theoretically models its behavioral profiling system following an Israeli model.
Their track record abysmal.
In 1988, passengers checking in at Frankfurt Airport for Pan Am flight 103 were questioned by security staff, supposedly looking for behavioral profiles akin to SPOT techniques. The staff spoke inadequate English to understand responses. They were given stickers to identify passengers who should be subject to further scrutiny (“selectees,”) but the screening staff did not even know what a “selectee” was, so they just assigned the stickers at random. Two hundred forty-three passengers and 16 crew died when a bomb exploded aboard the second segment of the flight.
On 21 December 2001, Richard Colvin Reid checked in at Terminal 2A at Paris Roissy/Charles de Gaulle Airport. American Airlines’ contract security agents were wary of Reid’s appearance and evasive answers to their questions. After consultation with the French Police, Reid was given a ticket for a flight the following day. He boarded American Airlines flight 63 with his shoes loaded with plastic explosives.
Seven years later, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab passed through a document inspection and security interview by KLM contract security staff in Lagos. He was then interviewed and searched by Delta Air Lines’ contract security agent, ICTS, at Amsterdam Airport Schipol. The interview did not arouse enough suspicion to warrant further search or inspection, and Abdulmutallab boarded Delta Air Lines flight 253 with explosives in his underwear.
At least Reid and Abdulmutallab did not harm anyone.
Can this Work? Common Sense Behavioral Detection
On 14 December 1999, “Benni Antonie Noris” arrived in Port Angeles, Washington in a green Chrysler 300M. Customs officer Diana Dean asked where he was headed. In broken English, Noris stated that he was headed to Seattle for a “business trip.” This made little sense since there are far more direct ways to travel from Vancouver to Seattle. Noris was fidgeting, jittery, and sweating. He began fidgeting and squirming, hiding his hands. His form of identification was a Costco Card.
Port Angeles, Washington
It did not require a SPOT form to give Diana Dean an indication that this driver’s behavior was atypical.
The driver was unable to articulate his plans in Seattle nor where he was staying. Dean described him as acting “hinky” (I had to look that word up in a dictionary. It should clearly be in wider use.)
Inside the trunk of his car, Dean kept the conversation going as she and a colleague inspected his car. It was loaded with nitroglycerine.
The driver turned out to be Ahmed Ressam, known as “The Millennium Bomber.” Ressam was on the verge of executing a plot to blow up Los Angeles International Airport on New Year’s Eve.
Diana Dean did not need a SPOT training notice a problem. This is a man who used his Costco card as identification and hid his hands. No need for “behavioral detection” techniques. Dean modestly claimed it was “dumb luck.” It was not luck; she just identified remarkably aberrant behavior. This was not a checklist of someone blinking too fast or having shaved recently. This was a wise customs agent thinking, “This guy just used a Costco card as identification.”
The Israeli Method
As an Israeli national, I became accustomed to the envied security techniques employed at Israel’s four commercial airports.
The agents employed by the Israeli Airports Authority (IAA) do indeed “profile” passengers, but their efforts are often quicker, easier, and seem far more like the “Diana Dean Technique.”
IAA staff rank passengers from “1” to “6,” with the higher then number indicating the greatest amount of suspicion. I have only ever earned a number “1,” so I speak from the least intrusive end of the spectrum.
Instead of attempt to ensnare me in a trap with questions about the whereabouts of my bags or my province of destination, the questions are usually reasonable and fast. “Where have your bags been since you packed them?” “Did anyone give you anything to take with you?” “Are you carrying anything that could be used as a weapon?”
In some cases, the agents attempt to asses if a passenger is Jewish, but this is conducted in a roundabout way so as to circumvent religious profiling. Foreign travelers are asked, “Do you belong to a religious congregation?”
But the question is partially helpful as there are many Christian and Muslim tourists in Israel. Those travelling with a Christian tourist group are unlikely to arouse much suspicion.
In fact, I have only seen a few passengers earn a number “6.” These were American Christian young adults, who mentioned that they had travelled to Jordan, and they were given CDs by an acquaintance to bring back to the United States. They did not know was on the CDs. That is a case for Diana Dean. “You do not know the guy who gave these to you, nor do you know their what is on them?” I would have been skeptical too.
The IAA is cautious about race and religion. The worst attack on Israeli air transportation took place in 1972 at Ben Gurion Airport. Twenty-six people were killed. The assailants were Japanese, posing as tourists. Since that attack, the IAA has attempted to include ethnicity and religion only as components of its screening process.
Although many have published horror stories, the overwhelming majority of passengers do not encounter anything extraordinary at Israeli airports. The agents are usually young, bubbly, right out of their army service, and eager to show off any language skills they may have acquired.
There is no “show.” There are no badges, nobody is called “officer,” and the goal is clear: keep the airport and flights safe.
The staff joke, make small talk, and are typically make an effort to help those who are elderly, infirm, or traveling with small children. The goal is to screen for problems but do so expeditiously and without pretending to be anything other than airport security.
I have heard stories, especially from non-Jewish tourists, who were subject to greater questioning or detailed searches of their hand luggage. But I have never heard of a missed flight due to semantic tricks about the whereabouts of one’s luggage.
Although I do defend every aspect of Israel’s government, racial tensions, or the Palestinian conflict, I can say with certainty that I would not have missed my flight due to trick questions about the whereabouts of my bags or to which province I was headed. If I was running late, I am confident that the IAA staff would have done their best to mitigate the problem.
Is There a Better Answer?
Israel does not publish statistics, and I could not tell you if their system is any better. The difference is one of attitude: most of the IAA staff are kind, calm, and not interested in hassling anyone.
Moreover, Israeli airports protect their perimeters. There are two checkpoints before even entering Ben Gurion Airport. This reduces the risk of one of the TSA’s glaring loopholes: long lines of passengers waiting to enter a security checkpoint. It seems like a situation ripe for an attack. And it has happened before: in 1985, 19 people were killed and 100 wounded when terrorists attacked the TWA and El Al check in desks at Rome and Vienna Airports. The TSA lives in the strange assumption that only “sterile” areas of the airport are subject to an attack, thereby ignoring enormous public spaces.
Given the amount of air travel to, from, and within the United States, I doubt that questioning passengers would ever work. The TSA lacks the organization, multilingual skills, and service mentality of the Israel Airports Authority.
A crowded checkpoint at Seattle/Tacoma International Airport: mobs of people who have not been screened for weapons
The TSA already has one answer, but they chose not to use it in my case. I am a member of the Department of Homeland Security’s “Global Entry” program. This means that I was subject to a background check, interview, and fingerprinting. The Department of Homeland Security vetted my credentials and deemed that I did not present any extraordinary risks, and could therefore use its “PreCheck” lane. But this airport had decided to close its PreCheck lane that day. And their SPOT agent had no knowledge that I had already been vetted through databases and fingerprints… arguably a more reliable system than having him determine if I blinked too rapidly.
Until 2015, the PreCheck program also meant that one need not pass through a full-body scanning machine, in part because the machines are famously slow and inaccurate. They are particularly problematic for those with disabilities and other medical conditions. But the TSA decided that it would switch to random use of full body scanners even for those passengers who had already been vetted. Lines grew longer; no weapons have been discovered.
- The SPOT program has been proven to be ineffective. There is no rational reason to keep it in place.
- There must not be quotas or incentives for detailed searches and questioning in the absence of probable cause.
- Passengers consenting to a search should have the right to know what the search entails, particularly if it involves odd interrogation techniques that can lead to missing one’s flight.
- The TSA should respect previous court rulings that the search process begins when a passenger consents to being searched. Asking questions outside of the TSA’s custodial area of the airport is questionable for legal reasons.
- Reduce lines. The attacks in Rome and Vienna were more than four decades ago, but that has not dissuaded the TSA. Get the queue moving quickly, thereby reducing the opportunity for an attack.
- Stratified screening, such as he PreCheck program, makes sense. But it TSA staff elect to ignore the program, then it is no longer useful.
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