Behavior detection voodoo


Do terrorists and criminals give off involuntary behavioral tics that Transportation Security Administration agents can be trained to detect?

Former TSA head Kip Hawley certainly thinks so. During his nearly 4-year tenure as administrator, Hawley pushed for the Behavior Detection Officer program, fully convinced that "unintentional movements that signal emotions like anxiety, fear, contempt, discomfort and deceit" can be read by those with sufficient training, as he says in his memoir of that era.

The evidence seems to show otherwise, however--or at least show that BDOs are in fact not doing advanced practical psychology but rather engaged in racial profiling.

"They just pull aside anyone who they don't like the way they look--if they are black and have expensive clothes or jewelry, or if they are Hispanic," one white TSA officer told The New York Times in return for anonymity.

That article has led Rep. Bennie Thompson--already a skeptic of the program--to renew calls for the program's suspension. The Government Accountability Office, Thompson noted (.pdf) in an Aug. 13 letter to current TSA head John Pistole, has found that TSA doesn't have a scientifically valid basis for the program.

Certainly the notion of reading malintent from the face of an awaiting passenger seems far-fetched. It smacks of magical thinking--and the fact that its largest implementation so far, in Boston Logan airport, has metastasized into racial profiling strongly suggests that its basis is flawed.

Without a scientific study, it's impossible to say--which is why it's time for TSA to subject behavior detection to a rigorous, systematic, peer-reviewed examination. Why it hasn't done so baffles me--doesn't TSA want effective solutions? Or is it simply that BDOs are another facet of a security system that relies anyway on muddy intuition, hasty judgment at headquarters and heavy dollops of hope. Let's ask TSA leadership--and be on the lookout for facial flushing, sweating, voice tremors, changes in voice pitch, choice of words and a dry mouth. - Dave