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Welcome to Airport Security. A "Wizard" Will Be With You Shortly to Engage in Racial Profiling and Violate Your Privacy.

Falen M. LaPonzina,
Washington Legislative Office
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July 7, 2010

Let’s talk about a little known program being deployed across the nations’ airports called SPOT, Screening Passengers by Observation Technique. According to an article in Nature News, by Sharon Weinberger, America’s Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has trained 3,000 officers to detect and infer future behavior, in what can only be described as a psychic effort, to determine an individual’s intent. The TSA claims that these screeners are trained to observe and identify people who appear to be deceptive and planning hostile acts.

How, you ask?

In the 1970’s psychologist Paul Ekman codeveloped the ‘facial action coding system’, for analyzing human facial expressions. He is now capitalizing on this theory by teaching people he calls “wizards” how to link those expressions to hidden emotions, including the intent to deceive. I would caution travelers against tensing your lips or raising your brow while waiting in an airport security line. You may end up in cuffs.

Although this has been a lucrative venture for Ekman and the media is eating up his superhero detection rhetoric, Weinberger reports that his colleagues are still waiting to see a comprehensive evaluation of his work. According to her findings, his work has never been subjected to controlled scientific tests. She goes on to cite instances where fellow scientists were unable to replicate Ekman’s results on facial coding. In fact, recent studies have cast serious doubt on the scientific basis for Ekman’s and the TSA’s wishful thinking. The JASON Defense Advisory Group prepared a report in 2008 that stated, “No scientific evidence exists to support the detection or inference of future behavior, including intent.” In addition, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of the U.S. Congress, released a two- year review of the program stating that the TSA had no business deploying SPOT in airports across the nation “without first validating the scientific basis for identifying suspicious passengers in an airport environment.”

It gets better. According to the GAO report,from late May 2004 through August 2008, Behavior Detection Officers (BDOs) referred 152,000 travelers to secondary inspection, which resulted in approximately 1,100 arrests. These arrests included offenses such as outstanding warrants, illegal alien status and possession of drugs, but none of them were for terrorism-related offenses or threats to aviation, which is what the SPOT program is designed to identify. As Jim Harper of the CATO Institute pointed out , the number of arrests represents less than 1 percent of those sent to secondary screening. The GAO noted its inability to determine if this is a better arrest rate than would occur under random screenings. In other words, these statistics are likely not greater than chance. On a separate note, the GAO report also determined that at least 16 individuals allegedly involved in terrorism plots have moved at least 23 different times through eight airports where the SPOT program has been implemented. SPOT failed to catch any of these individuals.

A prime example where SPOT may have been implemented, yet failed to produce anything but civil liberties violations is the case of Nick George. In 2009 Nick was interrogated, handcuffed and detained for nearly five hours at the Philadelphia International Airport after the TSA found a set of English-Arabic flashcards in his carry-on luggage (he was using them to study for a college language course). On what basis, you ask? No one seems to know.

SPOT has sent a total of over 232,000 travelers to secondary screening but has never identified a threat to aviation. The program is effectively giving TSA employees carte blanche to stop anyone they like based on their own personal biases, which essentially amounts to arbitrary enforcement measures. They are implicating innocent people with dubious science, and neither they nor their agency heads are held accountable for their actions.

These measures are intrusive and serve no other purpose than to act as a façade, all the while unjustifiably profiling American citizens, at significant expense and with no real security gains. This program is a direct violation of individual privacy, arguably one of the most basic civil rights afforded to U.S. citizens. Is it too much to ask that the government scientifically verify the effectiveness of a practice that impacts millions of Americans, before rolling it out in airports across the country?

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