Aviation Security:

TSA Should Limit Future Funding for Behavior Detection Activities

GAO-14-159: Published: Nov 8, 2013. Publicly Released: Nov 13, 2013.

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Stephen M. Lord
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What GAO Found

Available evidence does not support whether behavioral indicators, which are used in the Transportation Security Administration's (TSA) Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program, can be used to identify persons who may pose a risk to aviation security. GAO reviewed four meta-analyses (reviews that analyze other studies and synthesize their findings) that included over 400 studies from the past 60 years and found that the human ability to accurately identify deceptive behavior based on behavioral indicators is the same as or slightly better than chance. Further, the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) April 2011 study conducted to validate SPOT's behavioral indicators did not demonstrate their effectiveness because of study limitations, including the use of unreliable data. Twenty-one of the 25 behavior detection officers (BDO) GAO interviewed at four airports said that some behavioral indicators are subjective. TSA officials agree, and said they are working to better define them. GAO analyzed data from fiscal years 2011 and 2012 on the rates at which BDOs referred passengers for additional screening based on behavioral indicators and found that BDOs' referral rates varied significantly across airports, raising questions about the use of behavioral indicators by BDOs. To help ensure consistency, TSA officials said they deployed teams nationally to verify compliance with SPOT procedures in August 2013. However, these teams are not designed to help ensure BDOs consistently interpret SPOT indicators.

TSA has limited information to evaluate SPOT's effectiveness, but plans to collect additional performance data. The April 2011 study found that SPOT was more likely to correctly identify outcomes representing a high-risk passenger--such as possession of a fraudulent document--than through a random selection process. However, the study results are inconclusive because of limitations in the design and data collection and cannot be used to demonstrate the effectiveness of SPOT. For example, TSA collected the study data unevenly. In December 2009, TSA began collecting data from 24 airports, added 1 airport after 3 months, and an additional 18 airports more than 7 months later when it determined that the airports were not collecting enough data to reach the study's required sample size. Since aviation activity and passenger demographics are not constant throughout the year, this uneven data collection may have conflated the effect of random versus SPOT selection methods. Further, BDOs knew if passengers they screened were selected using the random selection protocol or SPOT procedures, a fact that may have introduced bias into the study. TSA completed a performance metrics plan in November 2012 that details the performance measures required for TSA to determine whether its behavior detection activities are effective, as GAO recommended in May 2010. However, the plan notes that it will be 3 years before TSA can begin to report on the effectiveness of its behavior detection activities. Until TSA can provide scientifically validated evidence demonstrating that behavioral indicators can be used to identify passengers who may pose a threat to aviation security, the agency risks funding activities that have not been determined to be effective. This is a public version of a sensitive report that GAO issued in November 2013. Information that TSA deemed sensitive has been redacted.

Why GAO Did This Study

TSA began deploying the SPOT program in fiscal year 2007--and has since spent about $900 million--to identify persons who may pose a risk to aviation security through the observation of behavioral indicators. In May 2010, GAO concluded, among other things, that TSA deployed SPOT without validating its scientific basis and SPOT lacked performance measures. GAO was asked to update its assessment. This report addresses the extent to which (1) available evidence supports the use of behavioral indicators to identify aviation security threats and (2) TSA has the data necessary to assess the SPOT program's effectiveness. GAO analyzed fiscal year 2011 and 2012 SPOT program data. GAO visited four SPOT airports, chosen on the basis of size, among other things, and interviewed TSA officials and a nonprobability sample of 25 randomly selected BDOs. These results are not generalizable, but provided insights.

What GAO Recommends

Congress should consider the absence of scientifically validated evidence for using behavioral indicators to identify threats to aviation security when assessing the potential benefits and cost in making future funding decisions for aviation security. GAO included this matter because DHS did not concur with GAO’s recommendation that TSA limit future funding for these activities until it can provide such evidence, in part because DHS disagreed with GAO’s analysis of indicators. GAO continues to believe the report findings and recommendation are valid.

For more information, contact Stephen M. Lord at (202) 512-4379 or lords@gao.gov.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: The Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act, 2015, enacted in March 2015, imposed a funding restriction on the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) based in part on the findings in GAO's November 2013 report. Specifically, the act provided that $25 million of TSA's appropriation shall be withheld from obligation for "Headquarters Administration" until TSA submits to the Appropriations Committees of the Senate and House of Representatives a report providing evidence demonstrating that behavioral indicators can be used to identify passengers who may pose a threat to aviation security and the plans that will be put into place to collect additional performance data. In response, in August 2015, TSA submitted a report to Congress that discussed the scientific evidence it had gathered and used as a basis to revise the behavior indicators and a new behavior detection protocol it had developed. The report also discusses test strategies TSA had planned if the decision were made to deploy the protocols nationwide. These tests included a pilot test of the new protocols that was underway at that time, and two efforts that were under development--an operational test of the effectiveness of behavior detection and a study to examine potential disparity issues to ensure that the protocols do not systematically target individuals based on demographic, ethnic, or religious characteristics. With regard to the act's provision requiring TSA to outline its plans to collect performance data, TSA stated in the August 2015 report that following the operational test, it would analyze the test data collected and establish required thresholds for determining behavior detection effectiveness, including the rates at which behavior detection officers accurately assess behavioral indicators and refer individuals for additional screening, and the frequency with which these referrals lead to high-risk outcomes.

    Matter: To help ensure that security-related funding is directed to programs that have demonstrated their effectiveness, Congress should consider the findings in this report regarding the absence of scientifically validated evidence for using behavioral indicators to identify aviation security threats when assessing the potential benefits of behavior detection activities relative to their cost when making future funding decisions related to aviation security.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) did not concur with GAO's November 2013 recommendation. In January 2015, TSA provided documentation describing its plans to enhance its behavioral-based screening program, including its efforts to compile articles and research involving suicide bombers that are to be a basis to revise the behavioral detection indicators to be used in new protocols. In October 2015, TSA officials told GAO they had revised the behavioral indicators and were in the process of pilot testing the use of these new protocols in the airport environment. The officials expect to complete pilot testing at 3 airports and evaluate these test results by February 2016. At that time, TSA plans to make a determination about whether the new protocols are ready for further testing, including an operational test in up to 10 airports to determine the protocols' effectiveness. TSA officials also told GAO in October 2015 that the operational test may begin in the summer of 2016, but they did not have an estimated completion date because the behavior detection covert test methodology had not yet been developed and the threat inject methods had not yet been deemed sufficiently mature to test effectiveness. TSA officials stated that they also plan to conduct a study on the use of the new protocols at 50 airports to examine disparity questions regarding racial, ethnicity, and religious garb demographics. According to these officials, this study, which will begin at airports as the new protocols are implemented and require 12 to 15 months of data collection, is not expected to be completed until 2018. In October 2015, TSA officials estimated that for fiscal year 2015, TSA spent about $192.3 million on behavior detection activities, which included the costs of 2,405 behavior detection officer full time equivalents (BDO FTE) stationed at 87 airports and 60 Transportation Security Officers carrying out behavior detection activities on a part-time basis (TSO-BD) at 9 additional airports. In contrast, in fiscal year 2013, TSA estimated it spent $201.9 million for 2,909 BDO FTEs at 176 airports. DHS's fiscal year 2016 budget request includes $226.3 million for TSA's behavior detection activities to fund 2,660 BDO FTEs at 87 airports. In October 2015, TSA officials told GAO that they had not determined the extent to which they would use TSO-BDs in fiscal year 2016, but they expected a small increase over fiscal year 2015 levels. GAO plans to monitor the progress of TSA's efforts to improve its behavioral-based screening program, including TSA's compilation of research on suicide bombers, such as research that has been peer-reviewed by independent experts, and results of TSA's operational test and study of the new protocols, which are intended to demonstrate the effective operational use of behavior detection in an airport environment. As GAO previously reported in May 2010 and November 2013, TSA's efforts over the last 10 years to validate SPOT have lacked rigor and were unsuccessful in validating the program. Although TSA has revised the behavioral indicators as a result of its research and is pilot testing new protocols, based on information TSA provided to GAO in October 2015, it does not know when it will complete the operational test and be able to determine whether its changes to the behavioral-screening program are effective. Further, until TSA completes its planned tests and study on the use of the new protocols and provides the scientifically validated evidence of effectiveness, the agency continues to fund activities that have not been determined to be effective.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that security-related funding is directed to programs that have demonstrated their effectiveness, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the TSA Administrator to limit future funding support for the agency's behavior detection activities until TSA can provide scientifically validated evidence that demonstrates that behavioral indicators can be used to identify passengers who may pose a threat to aviation security.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security


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