The TSA’s Bad Science Revealed!

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Sorta transcript:

The Transportation Security Administration, or TSA, has been groping airline passengers for 15 years now — ever since the September 11th attacks inspired the US to form a single government agency to catch terrorists before they hijack planes. In that time, TSA agents have caught approximately zero terrorists. In all fairness, though, in the first ten years alone 400 agents were arrested for stealing travelers’ items. Wait, that doesn’t actually make them sound better, does it? How about this: in all fairness, though, since 2004 at least 16 accused terrorists have flown 23 times through US airports without being stopped by the TSA once. Hm, that doesn’t sound too great either.

Let’s try another: in all fairness, the TSA has spent $1.7 billion in taxpayer money on a surveillance program with zero scientific research to back up its supposed effectiveness. I’m just making it sound worse now, aren’t I? So sorry.

In 2007, the TSA introduced SPOT, or Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques. I guess nobody was buying that because now it’s called the much more scientific-sounding “Behavior Detection and Analysis” which I guess would be “BDA,” making it pretty obvious why they should have but did not rename it “Behavior Analysis and Detection.” Because it’s BAD. Seriously, BAD.

The program makes officers use a checklist to score air passengers on their likelihood of being a terrorist. The list contains items like “wearing a disguise” and “whistling” nonchalantly, making one wonder if the list is based on a Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon someone saw once.

That’s what the ACLU wondered, so they sued the TSA under the Freedom of Information Act to hand over all their research backing up their program. What they got was over 13,000 pages of documents, amongst which were scientific and academic literature. The problem? Much of that literature actually directly contradicted the TSA’s program, like one study that concluded ““[d]espite decades of research effort to maximize the accuracy of deception judgments, detection rates rarely budge. Professionals’ judgments, interactants’ judgments, judgments of high-stakes lies, judgments of unsanctioned lies, judgments made by long-term acquaintances—all reveal detection rates within a few points of 50%,”or the rough equivalent of flipping a coin.”

The ACLU reported that “numerous” studies the TSA turned over found that people trained to detect lies actually are worse at detecting lies than untrained people.

Not only was there no convincing scientific evidence to be found in the TSA’s files, but the ACLU found that the TSA has been lying to Congress claiming the opposite in order to continue getting funding.

The entire ACLU report is astonishing so I encourage you to read it. I’ll just point out one other tidbit: the documents included an official TSA presentation on female suicide bombers that was titled “Femme Fatale” and stated “Females tend to be more emotional and therefore easier to indoctrinate.” So that’s fun. Obviously, there were a whole lot of racist stuff in there, too, making it easier for the TSA to target Muslims.

So yeah, check out the ACLU report to find out what $1.7 billion of your money has been wasted on. Then call your Congress-critter–you could tell them about that, or about any of the dozen other disasters currently taking place, but it’s just nice to call them to remind them that you exist.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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