GAO: TSA should curtail SPOT spending

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) should limit funding for the agency’s behavior detection program, which has cost hundreds of millions of dollars, the Government Accountability Office concluded in a new report.

The finding comes a decade after the agency began testing its Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program, through which “behavior detection officers” scan airports for passengers who show signs of stress, fear or deception.

By fiscal 2012, about 3,000 officers had been deployed to 176 of more than 450 U.S. airports regulated by the TSA, according to the report. The agency has spent roughly $900 million on the program since 2007, when it was first fully operational.

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But the GAO has concluded that the effort has a major flaw: “Available evidence does not support whether behavioral indicators ... can be used to identify persons who may pose a risk to aviation security.”

The office bases its assertion on a review of four “meta-analyses” that tabulated the findings of more than 400 studies over a 60-year period that looked at human ability to accurately identify deceptive behavior based on behavioral indicators.

On balance, the research suggests a success rate only slightly better than chance.

The GAO also concluded that the Homeland Security Department’s own 2011 study to validate the program used unreliable data.

Homeland Security did not concur with the finding, prompting the agency to suggest that Congress may have to withhold funding for the effort.

“Congress should consider the absence of scientifically validated evidence for using behavioral indicators to identify threats to aviation security when assessing the potential benefits and cost in making future funding decisions for aviation security,” the GAO wrote.