Luggage at an airport
Transportation security authority officers will soon be trained to watch for "suspicious behavior." Image: Flickr / toasty / CC-BY

The Transportation Security Administration has the responsibility of balancing two competing forces – security of air travel and customer service. A new security program, called Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques, will attempt to cut down on the number of invasive security checks. The science behind the SPOT program, however, has been questioned by many.

SPOT program launches in Boston Logan International Airport

The Boston Logan International Airport, starting on Tuesday morning, is the testing ground for a new security program of the TSA. For the next 60 days, the initiative will include both officer training and effectiveness metrics. The SPOT program relies on something relatively basic – a conversation. Security officers are trained to engage in basic conversation with travelers while checking ID and boarding passes. According to the TSA website, “security officers are screening travelers for involuntary physical and physiological reactions that people exhibit in response to a fear of being discovered.” Some of these criteria include things such as walking too quickly or acting nervous.

Questions about potential racism with SPOT

The TSA has built the SPOT program on the basis of several, similar programs in other countries. One factor that has many privacy experts up in arms, however, is the fact that many of these programs have built-in racism. In Israel, merely appearing to be of Arab descent marks an individual going through behavioral detection as needing additional screening. The TSA indicates that the agency is attempting to cut individual biases out of the system:

Referrals are based on specific observed behaviors only, not on one’s appearance, race, ethnicity or religion.

The TSA has been testing the SPOT program in airports since 2003, but the Boston Logan International Airport is the first full-scale test of the system.

Questioning the scientific accuracy of SPOT

In a recently released report, the Government Accountability Office questioned the scientific basis of the SPOT program. The office did not specifically say that the SPOT program had no scientific basis at all, but it questions the length of time Behavioral Detection Officers (BDOs) can carefully and closely observe passengers and make sound safety decisions. The GAO report also points out that “no other large-scale security screening program based on behavioral indicators has ever been rigorously scientifically validated.” In short, the SPOT program is being rolled out in the Boston Logan International Airport in hopes of answering some of these questions.


GAO Report
Transportation Security Administration

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