TSA’s Faux Objectivity

TSABack in the 1990s when I used to fly internationally a lot, US customs decided to change its procedures for searching people. (I can’t find information about this; it might have been a pilot program just at SFO.) What they had found was that they didn’t find any more contraband in the luggage of “suspicious” people than they did random people. So why bother? And more important: why risk the obvious problem of unfair stereotyping? People act strangely for a lot of reasons. Even though I’ve never tried to bring anything even slightly dodgy into or out of the country, I’m a nervous wreck going through customs. And this is despite the fact that I’ve never had any problem going through customs.

Last week, Jana Winter and Cora Currier at The Intercept reported, TSA’s Secret Behavior Checklist to Spot Terrorists. It describes the TSA’s controversial SPOT (Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques) program. This is the system of techniques that are supposed to turn an ordinary TSA agent into Dr Cal Lightman — the body language genius in Lie to Me. But just like the “enhanced interrogation techniques” used to extract false information from people in CIA and military custody, SPOT is not based on any science.

I am especially taken with two things on SPOT’s list of suspicious behavior. The first is, “Widely open staring eyes.” The second is, “Gazing down.” Given there are degrees to both of these, this sums up all possible eye related behavior. In other words: if the TSA agent decides that you are suspicious, you will get a point for one of these two. And this is how these things always work. We are all great at rationalizing our decisions. That does not mean that our decisions are based on rational thought. We are not nearly as rational as we think we are.

Of course, that is why these silly lists are created. The people designing this systems do not think they work for their stated purposes. They work as a way to justify what the agents are going to do regardless. You’ve lived a charmed life if you haven’t had this kind of reverse engineered oppression applied to you. The most common form this takes is a police officer pulling over a car. They can always justify it because there are so many ridiculous laws that we are all of us breaking the law all the time.

The Intercept article interviewed a former TSA agent about this:

One former Behavior Detection Officer manager, who asked not to be identified, said that SPOT indicators are used by law enforcement to justify pulling aside anyone officers find suspicious, rather than acting as an actual checklist for specific indicators. “The SPOT sheet was designed in such a way that virtually every passenger will exhibit multiple ‘behaviors’ that can be assigned a SPOT sheet value,” the former manager said.

The signs of deception and fear “are ridiculous,” the source continued. “These are just ‘catch all’ behaviors to justify [Behavior Detection Officer] interaction with a passenger. A license to harass.”

This is all part of a larger issue that I talk about a lot: in the United States, we don’t care so much about solving problems; it is more important to appear as though we are solving problems. The list of 92 suspicious behaviors is a way to make what are just gut reactions on the part of agents appear to be scientific and objective. But what they actually are was summed up well by a different former TSA agent The Intercept interviewed, “The SPOT program is bullshit — complete bullshit.”

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

2 thoughts on “TSA’s Faux Objectivity

  1. I know what you mean about going through customs. I used to work in West Africa and when I would come home for a break would have to run the gauntlet. The worst was having a drug-sniffing dog smelling you and your carry-on. I would break out in a cold sweat and I noticed others in line did also. I always worried I would be pulled out of line because I must have looked nervous. A friend of mine is Jamaican and whenever we flew in Europe, he would be detained in customs and questioned. Apparently only because of the drugs reportedly being smuggled through Jamaica.

    • Is that sarcasm about Jamaica? It sounds like, “I pulled you over because you forgot to use your turn signal.” But with the continuing hysteria about cannabis, I can well imagine that Jamaica raises red flags. Or it could just be racism.

      One thing that shocked me at first was the fact that in many airports, there were guards with machine guns. My sheltered American life didn’t prepare me for that (though many Americans would like to change that). But I got used to it. I completely understand what you say about looking nervous. I don’t know why I didn’t have more trouble. And I was often flying with scores of high tech gas canisters that looked rather like bombs. But I guess “skinny white kid” does not strike people as a threat, even though Dzhokhar Tsarnaev fits that profile.

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