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TSA's airport body language detection program comes under fire

TSA's airport body language detection program comes under fire

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The TSA comes under fire over a security body-language detection program at airports fails to produce good results.

Waiting to pass security checks in airports across the world can be frustrating -- remove items from your pockets, please. Belt, boots, laptop, camera. Take all electrical items out of your bag. Sorry, please remove that necklace and the bracelet.

Pass through the X-ray machine, and then potentially be searched. Finally, after an hour in the queue, you are allowed to gather up your items and move to the side. It's not uncommon for people to become annoyed -- but be careful to show any strong emotion on your face, the TSA may be watching.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is responsible for airport security in the United States. It has recently come under fire for arguably wasting money on an initiative designed to keep passengers safe -- not through the use of stop-searches or screening, but by detecting high-risk passengers through body language.

The TSA's scheme, known as the Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program, includes 3,000 employees based at 161 airports. Each staff member is trained to detect body language that may betray nervousness or intent to cause damage -- including eye contact, hand gestures and defensive movements.

Anything that is not considered 'normal' behavior may cause you to be placed under suspicion. More than $1bn has been spent in training staff to run the program.

However, according to The Daily, the record for this scheme's success is a disappointment. No terrorists have ever been discovered and convicted through detecting their body language, and the decade-long program is unlikely to produce any cost-justifiable results any time soon.

A federal watchdog agency, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), has warned that the TSA has not verified the science behind the program, or proven that it works in an airport environment. The budget has increased by 15 percent over the past five years, regardless.

Based on research by psychologist Paul Ekman, the purpose of such body language detection is to reveal "harmful intent" through flashes of emotion that are contained and concealed -- which come to the surface through a stressful moment.

However, as travelers already know, airports can be very stressful places -- and this includes for the innocent passengers. Delays, security checks, missed flights and long journeys can all contribute to negative emotions being displayed.

Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union said:

"When people go to the airport, they’re nervous or anxious for many different reasons. They're upset at their boyfriend or girlfriend, they’re going to a funeral, they’re angry at the airlines. SPOT is based on this sort of romantic notion that a grizzled veteran interrogator can spot something wrong at a glance."

Following criticism of the program's effectiveness and the strain on the security budget, the Department of Homeland Security has commissioned a study to ascertain the overall effectiveness of SPOT.

Preliminary studies have suggested that the trained members of SPOT are better at detecting certain kinds of behavior at security points, however, this does not necessarily translate as a financially viable way to protect passengers at airports.

(via The Daily)

Image credit: John Atherton

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Charlie Osborne

Contributing Editor

Charlie Osborne is a freelance journalist and photographer based in London. In addition to SmartPlanet, she also writes for business technology website ZDNet and consumer technology site CNET. She holds a degree in medical anthropology from the University of Kent. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure