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Editorial: Ramped up security


This past week, snowbirds and other visitors got a little more to think about when it comes to going to the United States. Canadian travellers were told to expect to need up to two hours to get through security heading south because of new security measures.

“Terrorist groups continue to target passenger aircraft, and we have seen a spider web of threats to commercial aviation as terrorists pursue new attack methods,” the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said on its website, explaining why new security methods were needed.

But while you wait in line, you might stop and think about how, sometimes, security can be misguided or just plain wrong.

For the last decade, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has been staffing airports with thousands of behaviour detection officers, which it calls BDOs.

The practice was recently reviewed by the U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO), a sort of auditor general for U.S. federal spending.

The GAO described the role of BDOs as identifying “passengers exhibiting behaviors indicative of stress, fear, or deception at airport screening checkpoints. According to TSA, certain verbal and nonverbal cues and behaviors —TSA’s behavioral indicators—may indicate mal-intent, such as the intent to carry out a terrorist attack. These behavioral indicators include, for example, assessing the way an individual swallows or the degree to which an individual’s eyes are open. According to TSA, such indicators provide a means for identifying passengers who may pose a risk to aviation security and referring them for additional screening.”

Only one problem: there’s no proof it works — in fact, there’s research that bluntly says it doesn’t. In 2013, the GAO asked the TSA to provide research to justify the hiring of all those thousands of BDOs nationwide. In response, the TSA reduced the number of behavioral indicators it looks for from 94 to 36 (what those indicators are is kept secret for security reasons). In 2017, the TSA also handed over 178 pieces of research that it said showed behavioral analysis actually works.

The GAO took a look at the research, saying, “We defined valid evidence as original research that meets generally accepted research standards and presents evidence that is applicable in supporting TSA’s specific behavioral indicators.”

Their findings this week? “In our review of all 178 sources TSA cited in support of its revised list, we found that 98 percent (175 of 178) of the sources do not provide valid evidence applicable to the specific indicators that TSA identified them as supporting.”

Sigh.

So, if you’re waiting there in line, you can either wait patiently, knowing everything is being done to keep you as safe as possible, or you can ponder on the fact that security methods may mean well, but not actually accomplish anything.

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