TSA can't prove that
its behavior detection
who may pose a
threat to aviation
security,' states a
The American Spark
TSA Fails To Provide Evidence For Passenger Behavior Checklist
By Cliff Montgomery - July 31st, 2017
An activity routinely performed by individuals who serve in the Transportation Security Administration (TSA)
provides a prime example of why some Americans still demand oversight and accountability for their
“Over the past 10 years, TSA has employed thousands of trained behavior detection officers to identify
passengers exhibiting behaviors indicative of stress, fear, or deception at airport screening checkpoints,”
explained a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study released on July 20th.
The judgments of TSA officials may have a real influence on whether authorities potentially treat U.S. citizens
or others as ‘threats to aviation security’.
There’s only one problem with this behavioral analysis.
“TSA does not have valid evidence that most of ... its behavior detection activities can be used to identify
individuals who may pose a threat to aviation security.”
Below, the American Spark quotes major portions of the GAO report’s introduction:
Why GAO Did This Study
“Over the past 10 years, TSA [the Transportation Security Administration] has employed thousands of trained
behavior detection officers to identify passengers exhibiting behaviors indicative of stress, fear, or deception
at airport screening checkpoints.
“According to TSA, certain verbal and non-verbal cues and behaviors - TSA’s behavioral indicators - may
indicate mal-intent, such as the intent to carry out a terrorist attack, and provide a means for TSA to identify
passengers who may pose a risk to aviation security and refer them for additional screening.
“These behavioral indicators include, for example, assessing the way an individual swallows or the degree to
which an individual's eyes are open.
“GAO reported in November 2013 that available evidence did not support whether behavioral indicators can
be used to identify persons who may pose a risk to aviation security and recommended that TSA limit future
funding for the agency’s behavior detection activities until TSA can provide such scientifically validated
“Since GAO’s 2013 report, TSA has reduced funding for its behavior detection activities, revised and
shortened its list of behavioral indicators, and taken steps to identify additional evidence to support its
“GAO was asked to review the steps TSA has taken in response to GAO’s recommendation. This report
assesses the extent to which TSA has valid evidence demonstrating that its revised list of behavioral indica-
tors can be used to identify passengers who pose a threat to aviation security.
“GAO reviewed and categorized all 178 sources that, as of April 2017, TSA cited as providing support for
specific behavioral indicators [and] to identify the extent to which they present valid evidence.
“GAO also interviewed TSA officials and officials from the American Institutes for Research - a behavioral and
social science research and evaluation organization - and analyzed documentary evidence from these entities
to better understand the steps TSA has taken and evidence TSA has used to substantiate its revised list of
What GAO Found
“TSA does not have valid evidence that most of the revised behavioral indicators (28 of 36) used in its behav-
ior detection activities can be used to identify individuals who may pose a threat to aviation security.
“GAO defined valid evidence as original research that meets generally accepted research standards and
presents evidence that is applicable in supporting the specific behavioral indicators in TSA’s revised list.
“Original research sources presenting valid evidence are important because the data and conclusions they
present are derived from empirical research that can be replicated and evaluated.
“[But] in GAO’s review of all 178 sources TSA cited as support for its revised list, GAO found that 98 percent
(175 of 178) of the sources do not provide valid evidence that is applicable to the specific behavioral indica-
tors TSA cited them as supporting.
- Seventy-seven percent of the sources TSA cited (137 of 178) 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.
- Twelve percent of the sources TSA cited (21 of 178) 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.
- Eleven percent of the sources TSA cited (20 of 178) 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
“In total, GAO found that [only] 3 of the 178 total sources cited could be used as valid evidence to support 8 of
the 36 behavioral indicators in TSA’s revised list.
“More specifically, TSA has one source of valid evidence to support each of 7 indicators, 2 sources of valid
evidence to support 1 indicator, and does not have valid evidence to support 28 behavioral indicators.
“GAO makes no new recommendations in this report.”
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