Harassment is an Art, Not a Science

The TSA continues to find new and innovative ways of harassing airline passengers:

TSA screeners trained to pick out suspicious or anomalous behaviour in passengers. There are about 3,000 of these officers working at some 161 airports across the United States, all part of a four-year-old programme called Screening Passengers by Observation Technique (SPOT), which is designed to identify people who could pose a threat to airline passengers. [link]

I found this off the Economist‘s travel blog, Gulliver:

The programme, known as SPOT, for “Screening Passengers by Observation Technique,” is intended to allow airport security officers to use tiny facial cues to identify people who are acting suspiciously. The British government is currently launching a new screening regime modelled on the Americans’ SPOT. There’s just one problem with all this: there’s no evidence that SPOT is actually effective. [link]

The creator of such techniques, is a psychologist Paul Ekman.

In the 1970s, Ekman co-developed the ‘facial action coding system’ for analysing human facial expressions, and has since turned it into a methodology for teaching people how to link those expressions to a variety of hidden emotions, including an intent to deceive. He puts particular emphasis on ‘microfacial’ expressions such as a tensing of the lips or the raising of the brow — movements that might last just a fraction of a second, but which might represent attempts to hide a subject’s true feelings. [link]

The only problem is that the technique is not scientifically valid.

“Simply put, people (including professional lie-catchers with extensive experience of assessing veracity) would achieve similar hit rates if they flipped a coin,” noted a 2007 report1 from a committee of credibility-assessment experts who reviewed research on portal screening.

“No scientific evidence exists to support the detection or inference of future behaviour, including intent,” declares a 2008 report prepared by the JASON defence advisory group. And the TSA had no business deploying SPOT across the nation’s airports “without first validating the scientific basis for identifying suspicious passengers in an airport environment”, stated a two-year review of the programme released on 20 May by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of the US Congress. [link]

The TSA (after doing this since 2006) is now commissioning a study to see if it actually works.

In response to such concerns, the TSA has commissioned an independent study that it hopes will produce evidence to show that SPOT works, and the DHS is promising rigorous peer review of its technology programme. For critics, however, this is too little, too late. [link]

This from the organization that allowed at least one (unsuccessful) terrorist onto an airplane, and has harassed countless numbers of non-terrorists. I’m not holding my breath. First, it was nail clippers, then liquids, then shoes. Now what? Faces? Underwear? This is definitely another area that requires radical reform. Most importantly, people need to realize that the real work is not done in airports, but outside them.

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1 comment for “Harassment is an Art, Not a Science

  1. Jennifer Hoe
    June 8, 2010 at 1:29 pm

    I completely agree, Arnav. We should be concentrating our efforts *outside* of the aiports. I have flown twice in the past 2 weeks and was searched both times. Really, people? I’d like to know what facial expressions you are reading. Perhaps the fact that I am barefoot, freezing (thanks for making me remove my jacket), wondering whether you will make me toss my sunscreen or if you will find something else to harrass me about causes me to worry. Could that be the look you see? Either way, the effort seems quite misguided to me.

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