Confirmed: TSA's Behavioral Detection Program Is Useless, Biased, And Based On Junk Science

from the come-fly-the-discriminatory-skies dept

Thanks to FOIA requests (and lawsuits), the ACLU has gathered enough documents to provide a comprehensive report [PDF] on the worthlessness of the TSA's "Behavioral Detection" program. Meant to give the agency a better way of proactively thwarting acts of terrorism, the program instead opts for lazy profiling, dubious readings of behavioral cues, and junk science.

The documents show the evolution of the behavior detection program and make clear the extent to which it is a program of surveillance of unsuspecting travelers based on unreliable indicators. “Behavior detection officers,” some of them dressed in plain clothes, scrutinize travelers at airports for over 90 behaviors that the TSA associates with stress, fear, or deception, looking for what the TSA calls signs of “mal-intent.” The reliability of these so-called indicators is not supported by the scientific studies in the TSA files. The behavior detection officers may then engage travelers in “casual conversation” that is actually an effort to probe the basis for any purported signs of deception. When the officers think they perceive those behaviors, they follow the travelers, subject them to additional screening, and at times bring in law enforcement officers who can investigate them further.

The TSA has repeatedly claimed that the behavior detection program is grounded in valid science, but the records that the ACLU obtained show that the TSA has in its possession a significant body of research that contradicts those claims. The records include numerous academic studies and articles that directly undermine the premise of the program: the notion that TSA officers can identify threats to aviation security with some reliability based on specific behaviors in an airport setting. In fact, the scientific literature in the TSA’s own files reinforces that deception detection is inherently unreliable, and that many of the behaviors the TSA is apparently relying on are actually useless in detecting deception. The documents further show that the TSA either overstated the scientific validity of behavior detection techniques in communications with members of Congress and government auditors, or did not disclose information that discredited the program’s scientific validity.

There's nothing good in the ACLU's findings. In addition to the contradictory lists of "behavioral indicators" that would make pretty much every traveler suspicious, the documents also include a "Behavioral Detection" presentation [PDF] that shows the compiler's inherent bias. For no appropriate reason, the presentation includes the following images:

Right above these questionable images is something just as questionable: a profile of "female suicide bombers" that pretty much encompasses the entirety of the female gender.

If you can't read/see the picture, the female suicide bomber profiles reads as follows:

Single, married, mothers or grandmothers

High school and college students

Working professionals such as lawyers, journalists, or medical practitioners

Devout or non-devout in religious beliefs

Intelligent, charming, and attractive

Very active in their cause

The cost of this program -- which simultaneously caters to biases while providing little in the way of useful targeting -- runs in the billions. In exchange, US taxpayers have received almost nothing that makes air travel safer. What they have obtained is the "opportunity" to be questioned without being detained, as TSA agents attempt to apply contradictory non-science to "casual" conversations most travelers feel compelled to engage in.

Engaging in mock-casual conversation with TSA agents is guaranteed to result in some level of suspicion, as it would be almost impossible not to.

The TSA’s list of behavioral indicators—long held secret but leaked to the press in March 2015—deepens our concerns about the program and calls into question whether it could ever be implemented neutrally and objectively. The list includes conduct as commonplace as being late for a flight, yawning, whistling, or rubbing one’s hands together. Other “indicators” are unavoidably subjective: appearing confused, “wearing improper attire,” “appearing not to understand questions,” or displaying “exaggerated emotions.”

In some cases, the TSA indicators place travelers in the difficult position of seeming deceptive to the TSA no matter what they do—whether they “give[] non-answers” to questions or they are “overly specific with answers”; whether they are “gazing down” or “constantly looking at other travelers or associates”; whether they have “no or little direct eye contact” or they have “widely open staring eyes.”

Putting agents in the position of sussing out potential terrorists with a long list of contradictory indicators does travelers and their safety no favors. When nothing can be reconciled against the TSA's disproven "science," agents are more likely to fall back on their own biases when vetting travelers. Hence the large number of non-white fliers "randomly" selected for additional screening.

The program hasn't made the TSA smarter or more nimble. All it's done is made flying even more unpleasant, especially for those that fit the "profile" the TSA provides… which is damn near everyone attempting to board a plane.

Hide this

Thank you for reading this Techdirt post. With so many things competing for everyone’s attention these days, we really appreciate you giving us your time. We work hard every day to put quality content out there for our community.

Techdirt is one of the few remaining truly independent media outlets. We do not have a giant corporation behind us, and we rely heavily on our community to support us, in an age when advertisers are increasingly uninterested in sponsoring small, independent sites — especially a site like ours that is unwilling to pull punches in its reporting and analysis.

While other websites have resorted to paywalls, registration requirements, and increasingly annoying/intrusive advertising, we have always kept Techdirt open and available to anyone. But in order to continue doing so, we need your support. We offer a variety of ways for our readers to support us, from direct donations to special subscriptions and cool merchandise — and every little bit helps. Thank you.

–The Techdirt Team

Filed Under: behavioral detection, dhs, junk science, searches, tsa
Companies: aclu

Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Thread

  1. icon
    Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 10 Feb 2017 @ 9:22am

    Junk Science

    Isn't that what they call history, climate change, economics (it's only good if it is good for Wall Street), net neutrality, etc.? Seems like junk science will be the new not fake news, not alternative facts, because we say so.

    And best of all, it fits their agenda, which is whatever they say their agenda isn't.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Feb 2017 @ 9:44am

    Any 'science' where you pick and choose what you want to acknowledge based on the results rather than the methods, isn't.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Feb 2017 @ 9:46am

    It sounds to me like someone watched the TV show Lie to Me and thought it was based on solid scientific data and decided it was an excellent tool for them to use in the TSA. Because everything we see on TV is true!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Feb 2017 @ 9:54am

    Like a lot of law enforcement professionals, TSA agents have a lot of faith in their unprovable gut reactions. "I know a bad guy when I see one. I just know, okay?"

    The Behavioral Detection Program was never anything more than an attempt to find a way to legitimize the fact that an entire agency was being run on amorphous hunches and guesswork.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. icon
    Machin Shin (profile), 10 Feb 2017 @ 10:28am

    Well, with lists like that they are certain that any terrorist who goes through an airport will "fit the profile". After all, hard to miss with "Everyone is a terrorist".

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    kallethen, 10 Feb 2017 @ 10:33am

    Security theater at it's most obvious.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. icon
    Ryunosuke (profile), 10 Feb 2017 @ 10:36am

    so any female who is not in the kitchen making me a sammich is inherently a terrorist...

    good detective work there Chief Wiggum

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. icon
    sorrykb (profile), 10 Feb 2017 @ 10:39am

    From the ACLU report:

    Numerous studies in the TSA’s files found that people who are trained to look for these sorts of behaviors are worse at lie detection than people who are not trained at all.


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Feb 2017 @ 10:40am


    Even worse, the TV-show is depicting scientists having studied the fields for a decade+ mostly. You are never going to understand how to apply it from crash courses.

    A more valuable thing is to be able to discern single syllible sounds from tiny expressional changes when people think them, like sir Darren Brown. At least that is mostly specific as opposed to being able to discern emotions, which in the vast majority of situations are unrelated and very rarely specific to the question they want answered.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Feb 2017 @ 10:45am

    I am rather curious. I would think other airports would have terrorist problems way more than the US. How does Israel or Egypt handle security. Why reinvent the wheel. Look at other nations, learn from what works and apply. Seems like the TSA just sticks a bunch of high schoolers in a room with a picture of a terrorist looks like and tell them to come up with a plan to stop them.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Feb 2017 @ 10:52am



    for nearly all security work, job one is look like you are doing something.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    I.T. Guy, 10 Feb 2017 @ 11:55am


    "How does Israel or Egypt handle security."

    With checkpoints and soldiers with automatic rifles.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. icon
    ed271 (profile), 10 Feb 2017 @ 12:17pm

    I'd say the program works well

    What the TSA would like to do is harass anyone they feel like harassing. Since they have a list of behaviors so long and vague that it applies to anyone all they have to do is pick out people with the wrong skin color and then claim they were just following the list. If they want to search the guy with the fourth amendment t-shirt they just wait for him to yawn and bingo, he counts as a terrorist. The policy is only a total failure if you think they're actually trying to catch terrorists.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    TripMN, 10 Feb 2017 @ 1:05pm

    What results?

    It's like pointing to the fact that they instituted this new psycho-eval-babble and it is a complete success because we haven't been attacked by any members of the Legion of Doom since then... or vampires... or werewolves...

    I guess there are a lot of results if you define it that way.


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. icon
    JoeCool (profile), 10 Feb 2017 @ 2:23pm


    It's the same for studies on police lie detection. The longer they've been on the force, the worse they do, paradoxically because of their experience. They "just know" when they're being lied to, so they ignore everything to the contrary. The rookies are more likely to pickup on actual falsehoods.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
    Thad, 10 Feb 2017 @ 4:29pm


    How does Israel or Egypt handle security. Why reinvent the wheel. Look at other nations, learn from what works and apply. ouldnt-work-here/

    Basically, you're proposing a solution that doesn't scale. There are a hell of a lot more people in America than Israel. They have less air travel, their terror attacks are usually carried out by a small number of organizations while ours are primarily the work of lone wolves, and their entire population has compulsory military training.

    Why don't we do what Israel does? Because we're not Israel.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. identicon
    Tom, 10 Feb 2017 @ 4:31pm

    I've got wide, staring eyes.

    I've got a strong urge to fly. And I've got somewhere to fly (fly to, fly to), so get the fuck out of my way you dimwitted thug.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Feb 2017 @ 4:35pm

    Re: I've got wide, staring eyes.

    You've no second sight. You've got shitty powers of observation. And this is how I know. When I try to get through . . . security with you. . .

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. icon
    That One Guy (profile), 10 Feb 2017 @ 5:49pm

    "Ugly people that I don't want to fondle could never be terrorists!"

    Intelligent, charming, and attractive

    Don't need three guesses to know why that's considered 'suspicious'.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20. identicon
    Cowardly Lion, 13 Feb 2017 @ 4:51am

    The Israelis don't just profile

    Some of their techniques could apply, and scaling wouldn't necessarily be an issue.

    I've flown into and out of Tel Aviv several times from European airports. Going, I, along with all other passengers, was always interviewed in a private office at the departure airport by a very young, polite lady who did not identify herself. It took about 3 minutes. Basic questions such as where was I staying, where was I going, why was I going, would I be meeting anyone, and so on.

    Leaving, I was questioned at Tel Aviv by another very young, polite lady who did not identify herself. Very similar interview, but I was also asked whether I'd met anyone, spoken to anyone, been given anything...

    I took the interviewers to be junior agents of some security agency. Possibly MOSSAD. Ethnically, I'm a typical WASP, so I'd argue I wasn't being profiled.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21. identicon
    Jon M. Kelley, 13 Feb 2017 @ 7:22pm

    Re: Ryunosuke

    I believe that you missed the line that reads:

    "Intelligent, charming, and attractive".

    Just what a TSA security worker wants to play with, all while being paid to do so...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22. icon
    Kay (profile), 16 Feb 2017 @ 7:48am

    The best part...

    My favorite part of the PDF slides was that terrorist organizations use females because "Females tend to be more emotional and therefore easier to indoctrinate".

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter

Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)


Add A Reply

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter

Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Insider Shop - Show Your Support!

Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Recent Stories

This site, like most other sites on the web, uses cookies. For more information, see our privacy policy. Got it

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.