Numerous agencies and privacy advocated have shown that, since its inception, SPOT and its BDOs isn’t useful at all, yet the government keeps throwing money at it. A new report from the DHS Inspector General concludes that it is utterly useless and a waste of taxpayer money. After hiring 2,800 full-time staff and spending an estimated $878 million since FY 2007, the TSA SPOT program still doesn’t work.
SPOT (which stands for Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques) is the program that places “Behavior Detection Officers” (BDOs) near airport security lines, where by intrusively chatting with fliers, they will supposedly be able to detect “something amiss” that might suggest a passenger is planning a terrorist attack.
At root, the core problem with this program (leaving aside legal objections) is the same as the core problem with polygraphs and other “lie detection” schemes: the relationship between an individual’s internal state of mind, and their external physical behavior or signs, is simply not a consistent or reliable one.
…because the SPOT program is based on searching for supposed “signs of terrorism” that are vague and commonplace (while terrorism is anything but commonplace), officers can basically pick anyone they want for extra screening. Surprise, surprise, that often devolves into crude racial profiling…
Criticisms in the report include:
TSA cannot ensure that passengers at U.S. airports are screened objectively, show that the program is cost-effective, or reasonably justify the program’s expansion.
TSA cannot demonstrate that BDOs are screening passengers in a uniform manner to identify potentially high-risk individuals.
The program collects data from referral reports that provide measurable outputs of specific activities. However, these outputs do not provide a measure of program effectiveness, because TSA has not established why these outputs support desired outcomes. For example, TSA documents the identification of prohibited items, undeclared currency, and illegal aliens, but the SPOT program has not defined how these outputs support achieving the SPOT program goals.
Basically, the TSA SPOT program is not cost-effective, can’t screen everyone in the same objective manner, and cannot pick out high-risk individuals. Though it may have identified prohibited items, undeclared currency, and illegal aliens, that isn’t what their mandate is supposed to be. It’s supposed to be catching terrorists, something the TSA has never done.
The IG also reported confused relations between the SPOT program and the law enforcement officers (LEOs) that the BDOs (not being sworn officers themselves) call in when. . . well, we’re not really sure when. Law enforcement officers at some airports “said that they had not received clear information about BDO duties and why referrals from BDOs warranted law enforcement response.” The TSA reported that officers “did not question approximately 13 percent of referred passengers.” One wonders if this is a sign of eye-rolling exasperation on the part of the police officers. We do know that law enforcement “referrals” appear to be wildly inconsistent, with TSA data indicating just 430 referrals from Chicago’s giant O’Hare airport in a recent 16-month period, for example, yet 6,981 at the smaller airport in Orlando, Florida.
A 2010 Government Accountability Office study similarly found the SPOT program had no scientific basis, wasn’t subject to independent expert review and had not undergone cost/benefit analysis, so the latest findings are not a surprise. The new report was ordered by Rep. Bennie Thompson (D, Miss.), who had previously tried to add an amendment defunding the program to Homeland Security appropriations legislation, but it was not adopted. Let’s hope the latest findings will lead to an end to this misguided program.
This horrendous, and useless, program needs to be defunded and demolished. Rep. Thompson should try again because all the SPOT program does is waste taxpayer money. It doesn’t actually do anything else.