Headlines, the TSA, the Scientist and Me

I'm about to travel through five major U.S. airports, four of them hubs. Recent headlines screaming about the TSA's 95 percent failure rate would worry me if a.) I thought "screaming headlines" were a reliable source of information or, b.) I had much regard for the ill-conceived and badly executed actions of Congress and the Bush White House panicked by 9/11 or, c.) I thought that airborne terrorists were more of a personal threat than deranged gun owners or falling satellites. Fortunately other publications (e.g., The Guardian and The Atlantic) have taken more balanced views.

For a reality check, I contacted Paul Ekman, the scientific consultant to Pixar's movie about the emotions, Inside, Out, and one of the world's leading scientists on the facial expression of emotions. Dr. Ekman played a central role in the development of TSA's SPOT (Screening Passengers with Observational Techniques) system, though the current version has moved away from his contributions. Naturally, Dr. Ekman is not an unbiased observer. Unlike much of what has been reported, however, he actually knows what he's talking about. Contrary to the scare headlines, the TSA's SPOT method is working and there's data* to support that conclusion. Whence the headlines? The tests of TSA's effectiveness were themselves ineffective. Dr. Ekman elaborated:

TSA personnel in the SPOT program have come under repeated, unjustified criticism. Their failure to catch people pretending to be bad guys is totally irrelevant to whether they will actually catch the real bad guys.

Let's get back to the real world. Money smugglers, weapons smugglers, and much more rarely, a terrorist try to get through airport security and not get SPOTted. My research and the research of many other scientists found that when there's a lot to lose (death or imprisonment) emotions are generated which are very hard to conceal and often leak out in what I call micro-expressions. The SPOT personnel are trained to identify these and many other signs of emotional overload.

When there is not only the threat of dire punishment for failure but great reward promised for success whether it be money or 72 virgins it puts a lot of pressure on peoples' ability to think, producing cognitive overload, subtle changes in speech. The SPOT people are trained to detect the subtle signs of emotional and cognitive overload.

Of course they didn't catch the play-actors. They had nothing to lose and nothing to gain if their "bombs" were detected. There was no cognitive or emotional overload. I am all for testing it, but let's not do it in such a shoddy, half-baked, invalid fashion. That only wastes government money and smears a valid, needed layer of airport security.

In a never publicly released study** by the American Institute of Research, people identified by the TSA SPOTters were fifty (50) times more likely to be wanted felons or smugglers than those selected at random. The evidence is in, the system is working, let's be grateful for this layer of security.

The lessons from this? Headlines rarely provide real intelligence about what has actually occurred. And, frequently those headlines represent only one group or even one individual's self-interest.

If the subject matters to you, read past the headlines, find other sources and, most importantly, follow the story beyond the media's gnat-like attention span.

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* The Department of Homeland Security commissioned a report on SPOT from the American Institute of Research. While Dr. Ekman was not a part of that report, he did testify at the same time the muzzled results were brought before the House's Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight Activities of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

** Why were the findings never made public? Good question (see "self-interest" above). The TSA is budgeted to spend $6.3 B in fiscal 2016. Perhaps your senator or representative can tell you what you'll get for that.