The federal government may have wasted $1 billion on a TSA program called “SPOT” that profiles people who may be “bad guys” at airports by talking to them, according to the Government Accountability Office. There is no evidence that it works, according to a GAO report being released later Wednesday.
The Transportation Security Administration’s Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program relies on training personnel to recognize indicators like fear, stress or deceptive behavior that can be used to identify persons who may pose a risk to aviation security. Those who exhibit those indicators are then subjected to additional security screening.
But the GAO report, obtained by NBC News before its release, concludes the training produces results that are “the same as or slightly better than chance.”
The program was rolled out in 2007 and now fields an estimated 3,000 “behavior detection officers” at 176 of the more than 450 TSA-regulated airports in the U.S., the GAO report said.
Four “meta analyses” of more than 400 studies from the past 60 years reviewed by the GAO found that such training produced results that were either equal to or slightly better than those of non-trained observers.
The GAO also analyzed data from fiscal 2011 and 2012 and found that the rate at which TSA officers referred passengers for additional screening based on the indicators varied significantly across airports. That raises questions about whether the indicators are subjective or were being unevenly applied, the report said. Furthermore, a Department of Homeland Security study in April 2011 conducted to evaluate the effectiveness of SPOT in response to a previous GAO report critical of the program depended on unreliable data, it found.
“Available evidence does not support whether behavioral indicators … can be used to identify persons who may pose a risk to aviation security,” the GAO concluded.
Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas, the chairman of House Homeland Security Committee, said in a statement to NBC News that the GAO report is “concerning, particularly in light of the fact that TSA has spent almost $1 billion on the program.”
“While I believe that there is value in utilizing behavioral detection and analysis in the aviation environment, we can only support programs that are proven effective,” he said. “The terrorist threats to our aviation system require us to constantly re-evaluate and evolve our security procedure, and if this program isn't working, we need to find something that will."
Representatives of the TSA and its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, declined to comment in advance of the GAO report’s scheduled release on Wednesday. But within the report, TSA officials agreed that some of the behavioral indicators need to be better defined and said they are working on that. They also said the agency plans to collect additional performance data to better evaluate SPOT’s effectiveness.
But DHS disagreed with the GAO’s recommendation that the TSA administrator “limit future funding support for the agency’s behavior detection activities until TSA can provide scientifically validated evidence.”
In its response within the report, DHS faulted both the GAO’s findings related to the 2011 SPOT validation study, saying its use of different statistical techniques resulted in “misleading” conclusions, and that its review of the research literature omitted some studies that supported the use of behavior detection.
TSA Administrator John S. Pistole is likely to be asked about the report during an appearance before the House Homeland Security Committee on Thursday.