The TSA’s Terrorist-Spotting Methods Lack Scientific Merit, Says The Government Accountability Office

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The TSA has a lot of problems with science. A football game is safer than your average airport, its techniques are horrifying Americans, and lines at security are just getting longer. And, just to add to its problems, now it comes out that how the TSA trains its employees to spot terrorists has almost no scientific merit behind it.

The Government Accountability Office looked at the science behind what the TSA calls “Behavior Detection and Analysis” or BDA. The idea behind BDA is that TSA personnel are trained to look for and react to 36 different actions and behavior deemed as suspicious. But it turns out the TSA doesn’t have much, if any, scientific merit to how it decides these actions:

77% of the sources TSA cited are news articles, opinion pieces, presentations created by law enforcement entities and industry groups, and screen shots of online medical websites that do not meet GAO’s definition of valid evidence. 12% are journal articles, books reviewing existing literature, and other publications that may reference original research in the text, but do not themselves present original analysis, methods, or data whose reliability and validity can be assessed. 11% are original research sources reporting original data and methods. However, 5 of these sources do not meet generally accepted research standards. Of the 15 sources that meet generally accepted research standards, 12 do not present information and conclusions that are applicable to the specific behavioral indicators TSA cited these sources as supporting.

So how many sources held up? Three. And, the GAO determines, 28 of those 36 points of behavior have no scientific basis at all. In other words, people have likely been getting dragged out of line or singled out for “intense” pat-downs for no good reason.

This isn’t the first time the TSA has fallen afoul of the scientific method. The TSA’s notorious “backscatter” devices turned out to be completely useless and were replaced by scan machines that can’t tell the difference between weapons and sweat. If the TSA is going to keep us safe, it needs to step up its game.

(via the GAO)