Feeling nervous, citizen? TSA Science! Forget subjective screening, which too often slides into racial and ethnic profiling; instead, evaluate travelers entering an airport using a rigorous set of objective measurements that could spot deception.

This was the admirable principle behind the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) program known as Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT), which has been operating at airports around the country since 2007 at a total cost of $900 million—or about $200 million a year.

Unfortunately, according to the US government’s internal watchdog agency, little real science stands behind the program. In a new report (PDF) released today, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded that “the human ability to accurately identify deceptive behavior based on behavioral indicators is the same as or slightly better than chance.” And it dryly noted that programs like SPOT should be “demonstrated to work reliably in their intended environment prior to program deployment.” 94 problems SPOT relies on a network of 3,000 behavior detection officers (BDOs) deployed at 176 airports around the country. BDOs observe passengers waiting to cross security checkpoints into the “sterile” section of an airport.

They are trained to observe 94 different signs of stress, fear, and deception, with the goal of calculating a “point total” for an observed individual in less than 30 seconds.

The 94 signs remain a secret, but we do know that anyone displaying enough of them is referred for a patdown and secondary screening, during which officers will engage in “casual conversation” to determine whether the traveler poses a potential threat. (The secondary screenings take an average of 13 minutes.) If so, law enforcement officers such as police or FBI agents are brought in to deal with the situation and potentially make an arrest.     

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