“See Spot Ruin” (Terrorist detection)


I have been fortunate to do extensive international travel and am doubly fortuitous to have received almost nothing in the way of scrutiny when doing so. About 10 visa applications have been approved posthaste and I am almost never stopped for additional questioning following a couple of standard queries at passport control.

I have been briefly held up twice. The first time was in Australia and may have been due to my bizarre clothing choice. I left from Hawaii in June and had forgotten about seasons being switched beneath the equator. I showed up in the winter sporting shorts and a T-shirt and this unintended eccentricity may have raised alarm. The other occasion came while returning to the United States from South Korea when there was a minor issue with my wife’s permanent resident card. We were ushered into a cramped room of five dozen travelers, the two of us being the only non-Muslims. We weren’t even there long enough to sit down before our problem was resolved and we left behind others who had been waiting for hours.

Having pale skin does not always guarantee such harassment-free travel. In one horror story, college student Nicholas George missed his flight while being harangued for five hours by angry FBI agents who wanted to know if he approved of the Sept. 11 attacks. George had been plotting to teach himself Arabic and was caught traveling with language flashcards. TSA agents were going through his luggage because he had been selected for a further screening by behavior-detection agents. There are 3,000 such agents in 161 U.S. airports, and they are part of the SPOT and FAST programs that aim to root out threats to airliners and passengers.  

The George fiasco was a public display of failure, but how much good do these programs do otherwise? Is it possible to tell through observation if someone is being deceptive or planning a lethal attack?

The science behind such notions is scant. One 2009 report found that TSA agents’ ability in this area was no better than deciding it with a coin toss. Meanwhile, JASON, a group of top scientists that advise the U.S. government, has stated: “No scientific evidence exists to support the detection or inference of future behavior, including intent.” Finally, a 2008 GAO report found that the SPOT failed to “validate a scientific basis for identifying suspicious passengers.” The report reviewed more than 400 studies and concluded that “the human ability to accurately identify deceptive behavior based on behavioral indicators is no better than chance.”

SPOT, which stands for “Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques,” relies on the methods of Paul Ekman, a former psychology professor at the University of California Medical School. In the 1970s, Ekman co-developed a system for analyzing human facial expressions and he has since extrapolated this into a method for allegedly detecting emotions and deception. He puts particular emphasis on small changes like pursed lips or raised eyebrows. Ekman claims that, with training, the technique’s success rate will hover near 100 percent. However, he says he does not submit for peer review since those papers could be read by scientists in Syria, Iran, and China, who might pass the knowledge onto terrorists. I’ve seen plenty of excuses for refusing to submit for peer review but this is the first time I’ve encountered a rationale of being concerned about a kinesics expert-suicide bomber alliance in the Damascus and Great Wall vicinities. 

And this means that the reasoning behind his claims cannot be examined by subject matter experts. But even without being able to dissect the specifics, scientists and psychologists express serious doubts about the abilities Ekman attributes to his techniques.

In an article for Nature, Sharon Weinberger interviewed psychology professor Maria Hartwig, who told her, “The human face very obviously displays emotion, but linking those displays to deception is a leap of gargantuan dimensions not supported by scientific evidence.”

In fact, SPOT’s methods have never been subjected to controlled scientific tests. Even how such a test would be conducted is unclear. Double blind studies are the standard, but in this case, that would seemingly require the incorporation of real terrorists to see if TSA agents could identify them at a greater rate than they could placebo bombers. A more realistic option might be to have a liar and a truth-teller present their tales to a TSA subject in a controlled situation. For instance, one person could eat a cookie and the other not, then both say that they didn’t. However, in such a case, the fabricator would be less stressed than would be an aspiring kamikaze hijacker, while the person being tested would be under less pressure than at their job since the price for being wrong is astronomically higher in an airport than in a laboratory.

Besides these issues, there is the predictable racial element. Whites, 63 percent of the population, are just 20 percent of those are stopped as a result of SPOT techniques. And whoever is being stopped, it’s not resulting in more terrorist arrests. While plots are foiled all the time, it happens before the conspirators reach the airport or when X-rays detect explosives.

While SPOT relies on trying to decipher facial clues, FAST (Future Attribute Screening Technology) aims to pick up on measurable body changes. The goal is to bring Minority Report law enforcement to airports by pegging terrorists before they strike.

The system measures heart rate, perspiration, and facial temperature, while a high resolution camera is employed to detect furtive eye movements, facial expression, and body movements. There’s even an audio recorder that detects pitch change in voices.

The problem is that, like polygraphs, these implements measure physiological changes but are unable to detect hostile intent. Persons can be under stress in an airport because their business proposal flopped, they missed a flight, their sister is dying, they are jetlagged, or any number of other reasons. Such stressors can set off FAST detectors and make the person a suspect. By contrast, a sociopath who truly believes he will be in glory beside Allah in four hours might by completely at peace and exhibit no alarming symptoms.

In the SPOT program’s first four years, behavior-detection officers referred 232,000 people for additional screening, of which 1,710 were arrested. This success rate of .7 percent seems mighty inefficient, but if a thousand Richard Reids and Khalid Sheik Mohammeds are captured, it’s worth it, right? Well, that’s not usually not who’s being apprehended. The overwhelming majority of those arrests were either drug-related or were for outstanding warrants on non-terror charges.

It is good fortune and good law enforcement that snuffs out terrorism. Reid was stopped because rain and/or perspiration soaked his shoe bomb, while Mohammed was captured by Pakistani security officials who used traditional special operations techniques, surveillance, and a SWAT-like raid.

TSA agents have a thankless job. They are viewed as obnoxious, pedantic, and authoritarian, yet if a terrorist slips through, they are crucified for not having those distinctions in greater quantity. Further, they are being asked to do something that they are inadequately equipped to execute. X-rays, metal detectors, and pat downs will reveal implements of destruction and agents are efficient at rooting those out. But SPOT techniques and FAST technology will not reveal intent, which at least partly explains while Reid’s shoes made it on the airplane while George’s flashcards did not.

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