The Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program has come a long way since I first blogged about it back in 2008. As of May 2010, about 3,000 Behavior Detection Officers (BDO) have been deployed at 161 airports nationwide.
For those of you not familiar with the SPOT program, BDOs are trained to detect behaviors that one exhibits in response to the fear of being discovered. In layman’s terms, BDOs look for behaviors that show you’re trying to get away with something you shouldn’t be doing. If you’re one of those travelers that gets frazzled easily (not hard to do at airports), you have no reason to worry. BDOs set a baseline based on the normal airport behavior and look for behaviors that go above that baseline. So if you’re stressing about missing a flight, that’s not a guaranteed visit from the BDOs.
Paul Ekman (PhD) is a Professor Emeritus at UC Davis and assisted in the development of the program. He’s been studying behavioral analysis for the past 40 years and has taught the TSA, Customs and Border Protection, CIA, FBI and other federal agencies to watch for suspicious facial expressions of tension, fear or deception. He has even taught animators at Disney-Pixar to create convincing faces for film characters. The SPOT program is a derivative of other behavioral analysis programs that have been successfully employed by law enforcement and security personnel both in the U.S. and around the world. TSA actually consulted and still regularly consults with several well respected behavior scientists when developing SPOT.
TSA deployed SPOT as an added layer of security to help deter and detect terrorists attempting to outsmart or circumvent the aviation security system. The program allows our officers to push security out in front and behind the checkpoint.
Our BDOs have identified illegal activities that have resulted in over 1,800 arrests at transportation systems across the country - most notably spotting an individual who was discovered to have explosive components at the Orlando airport in 2008.
We are aware of a new GAO report on our SPOT program. GAO’s recommendations are helpful as we continue to refine our procedures as the science and the program matures.
On a side note, I was a trained BDO in my airport days and personally feel the training I received was extremely valuable to security. Also, my wife, kids and used car salesmen are not able to get one over on me.
TSA Blog Team