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The Men Who Stare At Airline Passengers, Coming To the UK 468

An anonymous reader writes, "The Economist's Gulliver reports on a story in Nature that questions the current airport security regimen," excerpting: "Over the past four years, some 3,000 officers in America's Transportation Security Administration (TSA) have been specially trained to spot potential terrorists at airports. The programme, known as SPOT, for Screening Passengers by Observation Technique, is intended to allow airport security officers to use tiny facial cues to identify people who are acting suspiciously. The British government is currently launching a new screening regime modelled on the Americans' SPOT. There's just one problem with all this: there's no evidence that SPOT is actually effective. The whole thing is mostly based on pseudoscience, Sharon Weinberger reports in Nature." Happily, Nature's original article is available in full, rather than paywalled.
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The Men Who Stare At Airline Passengers, Coming To the UK

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  • Re:Effective... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by ColdWetDog ( 752185 ) on Sunday June 06, 2010 @11:10PM (#32480124) Homepage
    Salon's Ask the Pilot [] has a great logo for the TSA. I'd love to make some decals or patches and stick them on my luggage.
  • by Tackhead ( 54550 ) on Sunday June 06, 2010 @11:10PM (#32480128)

    There's just one problem with all this: there's no evidence that SPOT is actually effective.

    That's not a problem, it's a solution. It means there need to be more studies, and bigger contracts, to figure out which bits of SPOT do work (read: "none, but who cares if it works as long as we can keep getting funding"), until such time as the political winds shift in favor of some other crackpot in the bureaucracy who's got more money to spend than brains to care about what it's being spent on.

    Meanwhile, life once again imitates art:

    SPOT agent: English or American? State Security. Your papers, please.
    Clint Eastwood: Can you wait a minute?
    SPOT agent: Very well. Quickly. (pause) Your papers, please. (pause) Are you ill, or maybe frightened?
    Clint Eastwood: I've been having stomach problems.
    SPOT agent: Your papers are not in order.
    Clint Eastwood: They're in order. Look at them again.
    SPOT agent: No. They are not in order.

    Without giving away a spoiler to a movie that's 28 years old, Gant's papers were in order: the KGB goon was bluffing, trying to provoke a reaction.

    Every time I travel by air, I watch the first half of Firefox [], and every year, the part where Clint Eastwoodfails to bluff his way through Moscow's airport seems a bit less like an American director's 1982 portrayal of the USSR, and feels a little more like home. Problem is, there's nowhere left to fly to, even if you did get your hands on a Mach-5 capable thought-controlled stealth plane.

  • Lie To Me (Score:2, Interesting)

    by ZZZMaestro ( 1827506 ) on Sunday June 06, 2010 @11:21PM (#32480202)
    So, this is basically the same thing that the premise of the show "Lie to Me" is based on. Intriguing.
  • Re:Effective... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Totenglocke ( 1291680 ) on Sunday June 06, 2010 @11:27PM (#32480226)
    Since I refuse to be treated like a criminal just because I'm going from point A to point B, I simply refuse to fly.
  • coming into the airport, i had a lot of crap in my carry on, so i decided to reorganize on a bench just inside the airport on a bench by a trash can. at one point i even reached into the garbage can and retrieved something out i had just chucked that i had a second thought about. some little vials and stuff: the freebie ointments and lotions and crap you get in hotels

    i was very much hung over, miserable, unshaven and unwashed. my facial expressions were grim. at long last after my strange behavior over the trash can, i decided to furtively move into a corner and twiddle under my clothes: i was applying deodorant, but if someone was looking at me through a security camera, i can imagine where their imagination might have gone

    long story short, when i got the screening area, 3 guys eyeballing the whole time i was in line called me over to a special room. the other passengers looked at me like i was a osama himself. i started laughing, because i kind of figured out why i was being singled out, but i don't think sudden laughtewr helped in the suspicion department. they gave ma a thorough screening, asked a lot of questions, asked some of them again later (consistency?), and sent me on my way. they even had dogs sniffing around. i guess maybe i profiled more as drug mule?

    who knows. regardless, flying sucks

  • Re:Evidence (Score:2, Interesting)

    by milkmage ( 795746 ) on Sunday June 06, 2010 @11:31PM (#32480256)

    well, how may airliners that take off from Israel have been hijacked since the 70's?

    they "SPOT" people too.

    I'm not saying it's practical (in a place like OHare).. but apparently it works.

    we could learn something from the Israelis as far as airport security goes.

  • Re:If only. (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 07, 2010 @12:04AM (#32480450)

    Having an officer look at you is definitely not a violation of civil liberties.

    On the other hand, having an officer detain you for 4 hours without charge because of a baseless human lie-detector strategy that's not any better than a coin toss, is a violation.

  • Re:Evidence (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 07, 2010 @12:12AM (#32480482)

    You are shooting off the hip and apperantly you haven't flown with El Al or have been flying out of Israel on another airline. They screen EVERYONE. Not everyone's name sounds jewish.

    ...and they don't give a crap about whether those people ever fly in or out of Israel again...

    and you know this how?

  • Re:Evidence (Score:3, Interesting)

    by milkmage ( 795746 ) on Monday June 07, 2010 @12:44AM (#32480626)

    apparently you've never been through Ben Gurion. I am an American, but Asian.. so I don't look Jewish. They "interviewed" me but it's not what you think. Some dude just walks up and starts talking to you.. how are you, where are you going.. it's VERY passive... they're watching for body language as I give my answers. your not being interrogated it's in the terminal, they don't haul you off to an office or anything. it takes about 2 minutes per person.

  • Re:Evidence (Score:5, Interesting)

    by 0123456 ( 636235 ) on Monday June 07, 2010 @01:01AM (#32480730)

    You are shooting off the hip and apperantly you haven't flown with El Al or have been flying out of Israel on another airline.

    I've done both, which is exactly why I know that anyone who seriously suggests that Western airlines should adopt Israeli practices has no clue. Even if they worked, they would never be accepted in a politically correct Western nation.

    They screen EVERYONE. Not everyone's name sounds jewish.

    Do you seriously think they're as likely to search a Jewish Israeli passenger as they are a Palestinian or an Iranian Muslim? We're talking about a country which has real terrorist threats to deal with on a regular basis, not a politically correct Western nation which believes it has to strip-search a Christian grandmother as counterbalance every time they search a young Muslim man.

    and you know this how?

    Because they wouldn't treat passengers they way they do otherwise. The last time I flew out of Israel the 'security' at the next row over had a blonde German girl literally in tears; do you really think she's ever going back there?

    I should add that I couldn't care less what Israeli security do as I never intend to go there again and it's there country so what they do at their airports is their choice; but if such measures were imposed in America and Europe I'd take a boat next time I had to cross the Atlantic.

  • by EEPROMS ( 889169 ) on Monday June 07, 2010 @01:16AM (#32480796)
    The laugh is terrorist organisations know about SPOT and train what is called "clean skins" to get past all this crap. Usually they use well educated young people and dress them in designer western clothes and train them to use mental triggers so they never look nervous or out of place. The only thing SPOT will find is some poor bastard who hates flying or is worried when he gets were ever he is going will he be on time.
  • Re:If only. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by NeutronCowboy ( 896098 ) on Monday June 07, 2010 @01:38AM (#32480898)

    Fine. Observing passengers for potential cues is security theater. Then explain to me, how exactly is airplane security is going to work? You can't possibly strip search everybody, no one would fly. Having everybody fly naked is not an option either, as is having everybody be sedated and tied to their seats.

    As securing all passengers with 100% failproof methods is far more intrusive than what's currently proposed, we need to look elsewhere. We know that the no-fly list is bogus because it is secret and non-appealable. We know that removing all liquids is dumb as well, because you're a) always behind the curve in what terrorists will try, and b) because most of the hare-brained ideas won't work anyway.

    So what's left? We are pretty much left with SPOT: the observation of human behavior to indicate who gets special treatment. It is the only thing that can work, because it keys on the only thing common among terrorists: their plan, and the impact on human physiology of planning a suicide. Will innocent people be subjected to extra searches? They sure will. But behavioral observation - if done correctly, and yes, that's a big if - is the only real profiling technique that has any chance of not falling into obvious traps.

    Finally, for an insight into how and why it works, look at the security at the Tel Aviv airport. They have some spectacular saves that would have failed with any other technique short of getting lucky with a random search.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 07, 2010 @01:41AM (#32480912)

    for the slight inconvenience the others faced.

    The problem being that it's hardly a slight inconvenience - the article opens with a perfect example:

    In August 2009, Nicholas George, a 22-year-old student at Pomona College in Claremont, California, was going through a checkpoint at Philadelphia International Airport when he was pulled aside for questioning. As the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employees searched his hand luggage, they chatted with him about innocuous subjects, such as whether he'd watched a recent game.

    Inside George's bag, however, the screeners found flash cards with Arabic words — he was studying Arabic at Pomona — and a book they considered to be critical of US foreign policy. That led to more questioning, this time by a TSA supervisor, about George's views on the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001. Eventually, and seemingly without cause, he was handcuffed by Philadelphia police, detained for four hours, and questioned by Federal Bureau of Investigation agents before being released without charge.

    George had been singled out by behaviour-detection officers: TSA screeners trained to pick out suspicious or anomalous behaviour in passengers.

    A four hour detainment is hardly a slight inconvenience. Any kind of intense security scrutiny is uncomfortable especially when it's conducted at US borders - have a chat with someone who's been held for further questioning some time, I'll bet they describe the situation in a lot stronger terms than "inconvenient." Speaking for myself, on the one occasion it's happened to me I was frankly terrified. Completely innocent, held for an hour, not allowed to communicate with anyone, knowing I could potentially be held for days without reason, treated with disdain and disgust by the officials, and genuinly afraid of the outcome. That's not to say every encounter is of the same kind - I've had some great border officers and some fantastic treatment, but the one bad experience is more than enough to make me physically ill at the thought of travelling to and from America. Which is a shame, but that's how it is.

    Incidentally, it would seem that the act of observation changes the nature of the behaviour. Like how African Americans are on edge in stores in which they're presumed to be shoplifting or are being tailed by the local security guard, whenever I'm in an airport I act differently to normal. I'm so aware of being watched and assessed that I act more suspiciously in an attempt to project nonchalance and avoid an encounter with security. I'd be amazed if I were the only one throwing up all those false signals.

  • by Paolone ( 939023 ) on Monday June 07, 2010 @03:05AM (#32481288)
    I fly to and from Britain about 10 times a year and I actually lived in Scotland for 5 years. I get stopped quite often by those guys, probably on the ground that I'm quite fair skinned but have a bushy black beard and hair and look quite intellectualish-nerdish. Then I hand over my Italian passport and they start asking if I've been to Syria, Lebanon or Palestine or the Middle East. I answer with my best possible Glasgwegian accent that no, i've never been there and that I'm a software developer living on the continent catching up with my dearest mates and girlfriend back in Maryhill and that mainland europe is terrible and i'm moving back the soonest, honest. Then they laugh and let me go. On the other side, when I go through border control wearing a palestinian kefiah they never stop me. They're a leftover of the civil war in Ulster, apparently trained in remembering all the mugshots of IRA-affiliated people. Now they're a bit useless I guess.
  • Re:If only. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 07, 2010 @03:42AM (#32481424)

    Fine. Observing passengers for potential cues is security theater. Then explain to me, how exactly is airplane security is going to work? You can't possibly strip search everybody, no one would fly. Having everybody fly naked is not an option either, as is having everybody be sedated and tied to their seats.

    Good old investigative work. A terror cell can't really blow up airplanes if their plans are known to the police beforehand, can they? Apart from that, some passive security measures are still possible. Metal detectors can find guns and so aren't security theater. Sealed cockpit doors make it uninteresting for terrorists to attempt to take over an airplane, because they can't replace the pilots.

    Sure, investigative work fails to catch 100%; and there may be random lunatics that try to take over the plane anyway. So what? Real life contains a certain measure of risk, and considering the broader canvas, one is exceedingly unlikely to be on the plane that suffers such an attack - particularly after the measures above have been put in place. Besides, the terrorists are after fear. Don't show it and they lose.

  • Re:If only. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Runaway1956 ( 1322357 ) on Monday June 07, 2010 @04:01AM (#32481490) Homepage Journal

    No, it isn't your "right" to wear anything that covers your face if/when a cop wants to identify you. Do you have a driver's license, or a state issued ID card? You photo is on it, right? Were you asked to remove your glasses? In most places, you were. Did you wear a mask, a burqha, or anything else that might have hidden and/or disguised your face? Hell no, you didn't, or you wouldn't have the ID card. When a cop wants to look at you, you WILL remove anything from your face and/or head that obstructs his view of your face. Simple as that.

  • Re:If only. (Score:2, Interesting)

    by unkiereamus ( 1061340 ) on Monday June 07, 2010 @05:48AM (#32481824)
    Insightful? Seriously?

    The belief that a face should be covered is no more absurd than any number of other beliefs.

    Just off the top of my intoxicated head, the belief that on Ash Wendsday, people should go around with a smudge on their forheads to demonstrate their belief (not to mention the whole lent thing), Kosher food and the belief that cows are sacred.

    If you go ahead with the idea that people that hold beliefs contrary to your own are wrong, just because those beliefs are absurd, you've forfeited your own right to hold any beliefs that aren't agreed upon by the majorityof your culture.

    Quick, how do you feel about abortion, the death penalty and gay marriage? Odds are good you disagree with the cultural majority on one of those subjects. Thus, by your own argument, you have no right to hold that belief, conform, immediately!

    Inherit to the belief that you have the right to believe whatever the fuck you want is the belief that other people have the same right. If you disagree, then get then by all means be intolerant (see, I do believe you're entitled to believe whatever you want.), but don't be surprised when you are attacked next for failing to conform to a cultural norm.
  • by Rogerborg ( 306625 ) on Monday June 07, 2010 @05:50AM (#32481830) Homepage

    Actually, it sounds like exactly the sort of expensive worthless voodoo techno-babble scam run by Scientologists.

    Hmm, it makes sense. Why go to all the bother of fleecing individuals one at a time, when the government's has already got a system in place to do it wholesale? It's far more efficient to go after a cut of the big cake.

    Coming to an airport near you: the E-Meter Thetan-Terrorist Detectorator []?

  • Re:If only. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Erikderzweite ( 1146485 ) on Monday June 07, 2010 @08:01AM (#32482258)

    There is one and only way to deal with plane hi-jacking: enforced cockpit doors and strict instructions to the pilot: fly to your destination no matter what happens with passengers.
    In fact, after 9/11 major flight companies have adopted such rules. Actually, they have adopted rules that were in effect in USSR for decades (US was the loudest to cry about immorality of such rules back then, by the way).

  • Re:If only. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by AndersOSU ( 873247 ) on Monday June 07, 2010 @10:08AM (#32483270)

    My favorite part of TFA

    His critics argue that most of his peer-reviewed studies on microexpressions were published decades ago, and much of his more recent writing on the subject has not been peer reviewed. Ekman maintains that this publishing strategy is deliberate — that he no longer publishes all of the details of his work in the peer-reviewed literature because, he says, those papers are closely followed by scientists in countries such as Syria, Iran and China, which the United States views as a potential threat.

    We know its working, even though we can't tell you how we know it works, because if we told you, bad people would pay attention...

  • Re:Psychics (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Betaemacs ( 1737586 ) on Monday June 07, 2010 @11:29AM (#32484288)
    Psychics would be a better choice for screening. If genuine they can use their abilities to ferret out the bad guys. If as debunkers say they are simply reading people then they have lots of experience and are perfect for the job. Seems like a win win situation and it would be difficult for them to do much worse than the current SPOTters.

APL hackers do it in the quad.