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Following Monday’s bombing of Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport, the inevitable question quickly became: Could it happen here? A suicide bomber simply walked into the arrivals hall, a public area, and blew himself up, killing 35 people and injuring 168. There was nothing complicated about the plan, no circumvention of metal detectors or other security technology, and really no time for anyone to recognize that a suspicious and potentially dangerous person was in the area.
More troubling, the general consensus among TSA watchers seems to be that, no, the TSA probably wouldn’t have stopped the attack either, despite implementing a $212 million program designed to identify suspicious persons based on their behavior. Called SPOT, which stands for Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques, the program has screeners look for tiny behavioral clues in the faces of passersby. Screeners receive four days of training for the program, which focuses on “micro-expressions” to identify potential threats. But according to ABC News, critics say the program is ineffective.
“I see the classified results and it gives me great concern,” says Rep. John Mica, Chairman of the House Transportation Committee. “I saw what happened [in Moscow] and I have even more concern.” Mica tells ABC News that the program is “not capable of detecting what took place in Moscow.”
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has expressed similar concern over the program’s effectiveness. According to ABC, a May 2010 report from the GAO “found … that at least 17 known terrorists traveled through at least 23 U.S. airports in the SPOT program without being detected.”
The creator of SPOT is Dr. Paul Ekman, a retired psychology professor at the University of California, San Francisco. He tells ABC, “Micro-expressions, the wonderful thing about them, is they’re universal. There are seven different emotions and it doesn’t matter your language or your culture, if you have one of those emotions it is going to appear in your face and if you’re trying to conceal it, it may well leak out in a micro-expression.” The TSA says SPOT is based in science and has been used in other arenas for decades. The agency also says SPOT has resulted in 1,700 arrests, though none for terrorism charges.
Others say there is no hard evidence that validates SPOT’s effectiveness. “The scientific research shows that it’s very hard to detect whether somebody’s up to no good just by looking at their behavior,” Dr. Maria Hartwig, an expert in the psychology of deception and its detection at John Jay College in New York, tells ABC. “There is no scientific support for this system as of now.”
But in the case of the Moscow bombing, SPOT, or any behavioral detection system, may not have had the time to recognize the bomber. If anything, the Moscow attack shows that we have long taken for granted the fact that large, crowded areas in our airports are almost completely unsecured and vulnerable to attack. And aside from the security we have—police patrols, bomb-sniffing dogs, and the TSA’s SPOT screeners—there is little we can do. This lack of options also highlights the need for each option to be as effective as possible, and amplifies concerns that SPOT is not up to snuff.
“Right now,” says Rep. Mica, “I don’t believe SPOT gives us the protection that we should have.”