Subcommittee Examines Behavioral Science Used by TSA to Screen Potential Security Risks

Apr 6, 2011
Subcommittee Examines Behavioral Science Used by TSA to Screen Potential Security Risks

Washington D.C. – Today, the Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight held a hearing to examine the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) efforts to incorporate behavioral science into its transportation security architecture using the Screening of Passengers by Observational Techniques (SPOT) program.  The hearing specifically addressed criticism of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for failing to scientifically validate the Program before it was operationally deployed. 

“This is a common theme that this Committee is increasingly forced to deal with,” said Subcommittee Chairman Paul Broun (R-GA).  “Expensive programs are rolled out without conducting the necessary analysis.   This has become a trend throughout the federal government, but particularly at the Department of Homeland Security.”

Broun continued, “A crucial aspect that is often times taken for granted by DHS is the nexus between those developing the technology, and those actually using it.  In the case of SPOT, it seems as though the operators got out ahead of the developers, but typically what we see is the opposite, the scientists and engineers developing capabilities that do not appropriately fit into an operational environment.  Unfortunately, this is an issue that the Committee is unable to address today because of TSA’s refusal to attend.”

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) last year released a report on the SPOT program identifying several problems, most notably that it was deployed without being scientifically validated.  Representing GAO, Mr. Stephen Lord, Director of Homeland Security and Justice Issues, recapped findings from the report. “TSA deployed SPOT nationwide before first determining whether there was a scientifically valid basis for using behavior and appearance indicators as a means for reliably identifying passengers who may pose a risk to the U.S. aviation system,” Lord said.

DHS Science and Technology Directorate (DHS S&T) is currently working on a validation study that was initially due earlier this year in February, then it was pushed back to the end of March, and is now expected very soon.  While this report was regarded by Members today as a positive first step, witnesses highlighted that DHS S&T’s research plan is not designed to fully validate whether behavior detection and appearances can be effectively used to reliably identify individuals who pose a risk to the aviation system.  The study will instead simply demonstrate whether the program, as a whole, is more successful than random sampling. 

Mr. Lord said that “The results of an independent assessment are needed to determine whether current validation efforts are sufficiently comprehensive to validate the program, and to support future requests for increased funding.”

Further highlighting the need validation, Chairman Broun discussed potential opportunity costs associated with the Program. “The use of behavioral sciences in the security setting is not just another layer to security,” Broun noted. “There are clear opportunity costs that have to be paid.  For every Behavioral Detection Officer (BDO) employed to identify behaviors, there is one screener who is not looking at an x-ray of baggage, one intelligence analyst not employed, or one air marshal not in the sky.  I realize this isn’t a one-for-one substitute, but clearly there are trade-offs that have to be made in a very difficult fiscal environment.” 

Witnesses also highlighted ways that SPOT could be improved.  Dr. Paul Ekman, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of California, San Francisco, discussed research that he believes would enhance the program.  “One study that especially interests me would reveal how often people who show many of the behaviors on the SPOT check list are not identified by the BDOs, essentially slipping through the net.”  Ekman said that “If this occurs with any frequency, we need to know whether it is a function of the time of day, the number of hours a BDO has been working, the experience of the BDO, etc.”

Unfortunately TSA refused to send a witness to today’s hearing, severely limiting the scope of the discussion.  Members on both sides of the aisle were very critical of this decision, saying that TSA has an obligation to be part of this discussion and that the scientific underpinnings of the SPOT program are well within this Committee’s jurisdiction.

“The Committee on Science, Space, and Technology is tasked with the responsibility ‘to review and study on a continuing basis laws, programs, and Government activities relating to nonmilitary research and development,’” Chairman Broun noted.  “Unless TSA and DHS are arguing that science and research played NO role in the development of the SPOT program, I see a compelling reason for their attendance today.”

Attending today’s hearing as a guest, Rep. John Mica (R-FL), Chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, reiterated many of these same concerns with TSA.

The following witnesses testified today before the Committee:

Mr. Stephen Lord, Director, Homeland Security and Justice Issues, Government Accountability Office

Transportation Security Administration(Invited)

Mr. Larry Willis, Program Manager, Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency, Science and Technology Directorate, Department of Homeland Security

Dr. Paul Ekman, Professor Emeritus of Psychology, University of California, San Francisco, and President and Founder, Paul Ekman Group, LLC

Dr. Maria Hartwig, Associate Professor, Department of Psychology, John Jay College of Criminal Justice 

Dr. Philip Rubin, Chief Executive Officer, Haskins Laboratories

Mr. Peter J. DiDomenica, Boston University Police