Masterpiece Security Theatre

Boston TSA Screeners: Junk Science Failed, So Let’s Try Racial Profiling

Do not taunt Happy Fun GloveIn a very limited way, we feel a little sympathy for the Transportation Security Agency workers at Boston’s Logan International Airport: just like any employees in an organization that’s had the latest managerial fad foisted on them, they had to take a ridiculous system’s unrealistic assumptions about the world and apply them in a real-world workplace. So, like plenty of office workers who just smile and say they’re “implementing Six Sigma,” a bunch of Boston TSA agents basically made things up and said, sure, we’re following the program. Unfortunately, in this case, the innovation was a TSA program to identify high-risk passengers, and the improvisation turned out to be plain old racial profiling, which moves the narrative model from Office Space to American History X.

We already know about the joys of TSA’s porno cancer death scanners and routine child and congresscritter gropings. But since the TSA is driven by the need to be seen Doing Something About Terrorism, they’re always looking for new techniques to identify people who need to be looked at more closely. The Boston screeners were making a hash of TSA’s “behavior detection” program, which takes the common-sense poker player’s instinct that people who are hiding something have “tells” that betray their intentions, and attempts to systematize it into a method that would allow TSA officers to read the faces of hundreds of people a day as they pass through airport security.

Even when it’s done the way it’s supposed to be done, “behavior detection” is some seriously lousy science. But a number of Boston TSA screeners didn’t even follow the (highly questionable) protocols of the TSA method — instead, they simply relied on good old stereotyping:

“They just pull aside anyone who they don’t like the way they look — if they are black and have expensive clothes or jewelry, or if they are Hispanic,” said one white officer, who along with four others spoke with The New York Times on the condition of anonymity

It appears that the profiling arose, in part, in reaction to “managers’ demands for high numbers of stops, searches and criminal referrals,” which is certainly surprising! Who ever heard of arbitrary demands to boost arrests resulting in more bogus arrests? Talk about surprising!

The idea behind “behavior detection” is that a trained assessor should be able to identify “signs of unusual behavior, like avoiding eye contact, sweating or fidgeting,” that might indicate that a passenger might be up to no good. Unfortunately for the TSA, airports are alrady places of high stress where people tend to sweat and fidget a lot, particularly when they have to go through security. But while the scientific claims for the techniques are disputed, the practice is also advocated by — big surprise! — TSA bureaucrats who want to seem useful, and supported by an infrastructure of contractors who make a nice living teaching TSA agents how to do it. Like a weapons system that doesn’t really shoot down enemy planes, the program becomes a self-justifying expense, because it might work, and there’s a lot of people whose living depends on it continuing.

To their credit, several TSA agents disgusted by the profiling went to the ACLU to complain about the practice; it’s a relief that they were willing to come forward. On the other hand, it’s pretty telling that they had to go to an outside organization to blow the whistle on an abuse that resulted from their own managers’ desire to boost their statistics. And, of course, even if the rogue agents had avoided the racial profiling, they’d still be pursuing a program of questionable validity, but at least then they’d merely be ineffectual and annoying. Everone needs a goal: Here’s hoping the TSA at Logan International can stop being evil and return to simply being useless.

[New York Times / Nature ]

About the author

Doktor Zoom Is the pseudonym of Marty Kelley, who lives in Boise, Idaho. He acquired his nym from a fan of Silver-Age comics after being differently punctual to too many meetings. He is not a medical doctor, although he has a real PhD (in Rhetoric and Composition).

View all articles by Doktor Zoom
What Others Are Reading

Hola wonkerados.

To improve site performance, we did a thing. It could be up to three minutes before your comment appears. DON'T KEEP RETRYING, OKAY?

Also, if you are a new commenter, your comment may never appear. This is probably because we hate you.


          1. thatsitfortheother1

            Ryan just might be the only thing standing between Mittenz and a rather nasty floor fight at their convention.


  1. Terry

    Boston is really a beautiful city in a lot of ways, but it certainly is home to a lot of pure D assholes. Bostonians found a way to make the TSA even worse.

    1. Millennial Malaise

      I don't hate Boston, but I know I couldn't live there. Since I'm a nerd, I did find enjoyment in the freedom walk and all that colonial mess. But Boston is entirely too white and too cold. The Charles River might as well be Satan's piss stream for how cold it gets.

      1. Terry

        Socially, it reminds me of New Orleans. Very specific and rigid social strata. The history is great. No Name Seafood is amazing. I love the old look of the place. But as soon as I feel a true affection developing, someone does something to squash it.

    2. tessiee

      Boston is where I had the best eggplant parmigian ever. Apparently, the secret is to get thin, even slices and…
      oops, secret's out, I guess.

  2. ChernobylSoup

    Here's an idea: Tell the agents (and their counterparts in Immigration) that illegal drugs are not their concern and that they should only focus on bombs.

  3. ttommyunger

    ….just be glad you don't have to do that job to keep your family in hobo beans. I'd rather be in Hell with a broken back than do that job with that managerial mindset.

    1. tessiee

      "I'd rather be in Hell with a broken back"

      I'd heard it as "run through Hell in gasoline underpants", but as a former sufferer of chronic back problems (thank you, acupuncture!), I can appreciate yours, too.

    2. BerkeleyBear

      If you think about it, though, there is some freedom in knowing that everyone you run into is predisposed to hate you, no matter what you do. At least you don't have to do the fake enthusiasm crap retail is all about.

  4. ManchuCandidate

    I guess we can profile TSA managers as unimaginative, junk grabby, boob touching humiliation loving sadists.

    As for Six fucking Sigma. It is a fucking joke when put into a non manufacturing context. The only thing I've learned is that someone with an MBA AND Six Sigma Black Belt is the perfect managerial motherfucker.

    1. Monsieur_Grumpe

      I'm with you on Sux Sigma. Seems to me it’s just a crutch for those who are easily overwhelmed by the development and manufacturing process.

        1. ChernobylSoup

          You should see it when a government agency tries to apply Six Sigma to social programs. Fun all around.

        2. James Michael Curley

          I've been in a higher management job for years and no one ever was interested in adopting anything like this Six Segma stuff. We are much more traditional. To get the same results we use the old fashioned corporate technic called lying.

        1. TavariousChinaSmith

          And I lost a lot of money (but not a lot or even a small amount of money for Mitt Romney!) in Nortel stock. So the circle is unbroken.

        2. viennawoods13

          My father worked for Northern Electric (Northern Telecom, Nortel) starting in 1950, his entire career. He was lucky, retiring before it went tits up. However, my mother's survivor's pension is reduced because of what those assholes did to the company. Even worse, my cousin worked there for 20+ years, and when the bankruptcy hit, he lost his job, obviously, and got no severance, and no pension. After more than 20 years. Fuckers.

          1. James Michael Curley

            I also knew a guy who got that results after almost twenty-five years at Nortel. Presently, when we changed offices and had some independent bozo come in and install a new phone system, we got a four line trunk system made by Alaya. They looked familiar and one day when I was messing in the phone cabinet with my network stuff I noticed the phone box Alaya label was a stick on. Sure enough, peeled it off and it said Nortel. So this bozo sold us a three or four year old system with brand new labels.

    2. BerkeleyBear

      Yeah, between that and "continuous improvement" exercises ripped off from the Japanese, I think the entire goal of your average MBA is to never have an original thought, since they'd have to take responsibility for any of those.

      And throw in that checklist manifesto stuff, too. I know it helps in certain situations (typically, where your first instinct is to rush and fuck up) but dumbing down the American workplace is pretty much how all the decent manufacturing jobs disappeared, since 12 year olds in China could do them just a well as a 40 year old American.

  5. weejee

    The TSA workers had to go to the ACLU to get their whistles to toot, because inside the agency it was just dog whistle blowing.

  6. ChernobylSoup

    If I was in charge of the ACLU and had unlimited resources (and that, kids, is how the world really should be), I would stand an ACLU rep with a camera, notebook, and cattle prod behind every TSA agent.

      1. proudgrampa

        Can you imagine working in a slaughterhouse, using that damn thing? It's humane, I guess but Jesus, it's enough to make me think about becoming a vegetarian.

  7. Monsieur_Grumpe

    The obvious solution is to privatize anal cavity probing or as the Romney/Ryan ticket calls it Fiscal Reform.

  8. ElPinche

    I look like a terrorist (bearded, dark, calm&collected (stoned)) . I get upset when I don't get profiled and get my nuts massaged by the TSA.

  9. freakishlywrong

    Let's face it. They do this already. They're finally just admitting it. It's for "fiscal" purposes and will create jobs.

  10. SoBeach

    I was actually put through this interrogation at Logan a couple of months ago. I was surprised at first, but it was immediately obvious what they were doing and what they were looking for. I just played along, pretending the cute TSA agent was really doing her job well so she'd look good for the boss who was watching.

  11. thetimchannel

    Please don't go all "Fareed Zakaria" on me for the many future plagiarisms of "implementing Six Sigma" that are likely to result from my having glanced over this web post. Enjoy.

  12. anniegetyerfun

    Behavior detection is commonly used in Israeli airports, where it is often a bit harder to be, like, "Well, THAT GUY has a dark complexion! We should search him!". From what I have heard, it seems to work well for them, but then again, I guess Israel probably wouldn't bother responding much to allegations of racism in their screening processes.

    1. Doktor Zoom

      The big difference, as Bruce Schneier notes, is

      the experience of the detecting officer and the amount of time they spend with each person… [the TSA approach is] supposed to "spot terrorists as they walk through a corridor," or possibly after a few questions. That's very different from what happens when you check into a flight an [sic] Ben Gurion Airport.

      The problem with fast detection programs is that they don't work, and the problem with the Israeli security model is that it doesn't scale.

  13. Steverino247

    Yes, the ever alert Boston TSA guys. They sent my wife through the porno scanner (and didn't even let me watch the video, the bastards) and let me walk through the old device. Then, they alerted on the two bottles of Vermont maple syrup my wife forgot were "oversized" for the system. Instead of making a judgment call and letting her go with a reminder about restrictions BECAUSE IT WAS OBVIOUSLY FUCKING MAPLE SYRUP they gave her the choice of checking the bag or throwing the syrup away. Since she was already in the running for Playmate of the Month for July, she chose not to go through "security" again and the bottles of syrup were not delivered to their intended recipients, the grandmother and brother of a disabled Iraq veteran..

    1. cheetojeebus

      i bet that within an hour some 'agents' were dipping donuts in some delicious Vermont Syrup.

    2. mrpuma2u

      But freedumz wuz saved. Your maple syrup adds to all the sacrifices made by other patriots, like little old ladies who had their coffee dumped, or mothers who had their baby formula seized (that stuff has a high resale value, why do think the TSA agents took it?) It SHOULD make you proud to be an uh-MEHR-kin.

    3. TavariousChinaSmith

      My mother scored some free homemade strawberry jam when she saw me off at the Green Bay airport because the woman ahead of me in the security line was trying to take some to her relatives and ended up having to give them away so they wouldn't end up in the garbage.

      TSA: keeping America safe from Maple Syrup and Strawberry jam since 2006!

    4. Guppy

      they gave her the choice of checking the bag or throwing the syrup away.

      The USPS could probably make up their "shortfall" with some conveniently-placed Priority Mail flat rate boxes.

      And how do Express Mail rates compare to bag check fees?

    5. tessiee

      "Instead of making a judgment call and letting her go with a reminder about restrictions BECAUSE IT WAS OBVIOUSLY FUCKING MAPLE SYRUP they gave her the choice of checking the bag or throwing the syrup away."

      This is like when I worked as a chef, and every so often, the waitstaff would cut a piece of hazelnut cheesecake crooked. Oops! Now we can't sell it and have to eat it! Oopsie!

    6. Biel_ze_Bubba

      I threw my contact lens cleaner into a bag at the last minute, forgetting that it was my carry-on. Of course TSA pounced on 16 ounces of mysterious deadly liquid, and as they were studying it, I realized, "Oh shit … it's hydrogen peroxide." Sure enough, out came the testing kit, which "detected" that highly alarming fact.

      The label says it's peroxide, of course, but that just makes it a candidate for The Purloined Letter trick, so it was off to the races, as they ran though their whole "we found bomb materials" script. (Call in more people,who do more tests, which cause them to call in more people with more tests, until eventually they drag out somebody with sufficient brains and authority (if TSA has colonels, it would have been at least a colonel) to say, "Meh, it's contact lens solution' and throw away $12 worth of the stuff.

      I realize that these folks are bored to death with a sucky job, so I took the attitude of "hey, I'm making their day." That, plus the fact that I had an hour to kill, made the whole security theatre presentation tolerably entertaining. Not having "cavity search candidate" brown skin probably helped in the tolerability department.

  14. Baconzgood

    Here's a funny thing. If you are a terriorist you can get a job as a janitor or thrower and get into any place in the airport. It's the illusion of safety.

  15. Goonemeritus

    If you’re looking for someone with strong antisocial tendencies why wouldn’t you just pull aside anyone wearing Red Sox’s hats?

    1. tessiee


      I'm the anti-sports fan, so I may not have this exactly right, but I thought NY Yankees hat = antisocial, and Red Sox hat = loser.

      1. James Michael Curley

        I'm a Yankee fan. I an't anti-social. If youse give me mo crap aboutit you'll learn why those two cement blocks over there lace up.

  16. freakishlywrong

    One of my favorite literary quotes of all time is; "the joys of traveling are more or less fictitious". I think it was Zelda Fitzgerald.

  17. BigSkullF*ckingDog

    "Implementing Sex Sigma" my new porno name for today. Oh, and it will involve cavity searches as well.

  18. MacRaith

    Well, that's the whole point to the TSA, isn't it? It's not to make us safer (it doesn't), but to give politicians some cover. "Look at all we're doing to stop terrorists! It's what you demanded, and we're doing it!" Sure, it's a joke, and the people running the system know that better than anyone else.

  19. Oblios_Cap

    Someone I was reading referred to the TSA as "Security Theater". That's a fitting moniker for those worthless and iirritating jerks.

  20. BaldarTFlagass

    Just another reason why I'm flying into and out of Tom Green in Providence when I make the pilgrimage to the ancestral homeland this month.

  21. SorosBot

    But it must have worked, considering all the terrorist attacks they've managed to prevent! I mean it's not like terrorist attacks on planes are actually really, really rare, and that the handful of attempts that have been made since 9/11 were by idiots easily stopped by other passengers or anything.

  22. PsycWench

    "Like a weapons system that doesn’t really shoot down enemy planes, the program becomes a self-justifying expense, because it might work, and there’s a lot of people whose living depends on it continuing."

    I seem to remember a similar argument to justify waterboarding.

    1. bobbert

      "Like a weapons system that doesn’t really shoot down enemy planes the War on Drugs, the program becomes a self-justifying expense, because it might work, and there’s a lot of people whose living depends on it continuing."

    1. Guppy

      That reminds me: I need a haircut, and hopefully I'll get the woman who occasionally brushes up against me again.

      (What restraining order?)

  23. RadioBowels

    just like any employees in an organization that’s had the latest managerial fad foisted on them, they had to take a ridiculous system’s unrealistic assumptions about the world and apply them in a real-world workplace.

    Thanks for that Dok.

  24. MissNancyPriss

    I dunno, I'm a bland looking white person with glasses and get pulled out for secondary inspection 99% of the time.

  25. Spurning Beer

    Whenever I fly, I tape an aluminum foil cut-out of a grenade to my chest, insert a Mounds Bar in my rectum, and make intense eye contact with TSA employees. That's just the way I roll.

  26. sbj1964

    The TSA will have they're work cut out for them with all the metal detectors being set off by American Olympic Gold,Silver,and Bronze! USA,USA,USA! Profile that TSA.

    1. bobbert

      Remember the old guy they detained because they couldn't figure out what to do with his Medal of Honor?

  27. Maman

    Ugh. Any suggestions about how to avoid being assaulted by TSA this weekend? I have already been informed that I should wear loafers with socks and no belt. Now the question is sports bra and look like a giant lump, or any other kind of bra that will have enough metal in it to get me "randomly" selected. FML

    1. proudgrampa

      Instead of loafers, wear flipflops. Can't advise on the sports bra, as I don't have any experience with that…

      Or just skip the whole thing and drive to your destination.

      Be safe!


  28. fuflans

    dr zoom i am very fond of your columns and writing but today i do not think i can read six paragraphs about the tsa.

    it's almost like you think we have active brain cells or something.

  29. Chow Yun Flat

    They just pull aside anyone who they don’t like the way they look — if they are black and have expensive clothes or jewelry, or if they are Hispanic

    So, black people who look successful and everyone who is "Hispanic" which probably stretches to cover everyone else who isn't white.

  30. sufferinsuccotash

    Give people a numerical quota to meet and they will meet it one way or another, usually the "another".
    See the NCLB testing programs…

  31. tessiee

    "So, like plenty of office workers who just smile and say they’re “implementing Six Sigma,” a bunch of Boston TSA agents basically made things up and said, sure, we’re following the program. Unfortunately, in this case, the innovation was a TSA program to identify"

    thank goodness the fad for ISO 9000 is over, or they'd all be sticking little metal ID number tags on everybody's asses.

  32. HistoriCat

    "Gentlemen – we have to do something to protect our phoney-baloney government jobs! Harumph! Harumph!"

  33. tessiee

    Jerry Seinfeld is kind of a douche, but his bit about airport security is pretty funny:

    "I love airports. Feel safe in the airports thanks to the high caliber individuals we have working at X-ray security.
    How 'bout this crack squad of savvy motivated personnel?
    The way you wanna setup your airport's security, is you want the short, heavy set women at the front with the skin tight uniform.
    That's your first line of defense.
    You want those pants so tight the flap in front of the zipper has pulled itself open, you can see the metal tangs hanging on for dear life.
    Then you put the bag on the conveyor belt. It goes through the little luggage car wash.
    Then you have the other genius, down at the other end, looking at the little X-ray TV screen.
    This Eistein was chosen to stand in front of X-rays 14 hours a day.
    It's his profession.
    Looking in that thing…
    I have looked in that TV screen. I cannot make out one object."

  34. owhatever

    I refuse to fly without first getting a full body patdown and cavity search. It ain't much, but you don't have to buy them dinner.

  35. sati_demise

    well well well, there is a new kind of porno scanner- not the big blue screen- that has a sign saying "No death by radiation' (sic).

    I do not believe this sign so went for the grope as usual. now I have to try and land in Phoenix in 118 degree heat. what could possibly go wrong?

  36. Fisher1949

    This is the third time that the few remaining decent TSA workers have exposed TSA management for these illegal profiling schemes. These front line TSA screeners have also spoken out against the corrupt management that is forcing them to engage in this sick circus. They know as well as anyone else that groping a six year old and strip searching Grandma doesn’t keep anyone safe and only hands another victory to Al Qaeda.

    There is plenty of evidence, including these three profiling incidents and the mass firings of screeners in Ft. Myers, Hawaii and Ft Lauderdale, that much of TSA management has become populated with perverse and corrupt people and no one is a better witness to this than the TSA workers who expose these managers. If this is not stopped at this point the decent screeners who dislike being ordered to grope and humiliate passengers needlessly will quit and the thugs managing the agency will fill their ranks with abusive bullies. At that point security will become unbearable and America will be in very bad place.

    The behavior detection program has been shown to be hocus-pocus used to conceal a drug interdiction scheme. Is anyone really stupid enough to believe that TSA can train a fast food worker to read minds in six weeks?

    This is the third major incident in this program in a year involving racial profiling and harassment, illegal interrogations and unlawful searches and there have been others that received less exposure. TSA investigated themselves in the incidents in Newark and Hawaii and found they were innocent. No one was fired or prosecuted for their illegal searches and harassment of innocent people. What a surprise.

    Where does this stupidity stop?

    In the past two months 35 TSA workers fired or arrested and 66 more disciplined for misconduct on the job. A known pedophile, Thomas Harkins, was exposed in May but remains employed as a TSA Supervisor in Philadelphia. There were a total of 97 TSA workers arrested in the last 20 months including 12 arrested for child sex crimes, over 26 for theft, 12 for smuggling contraband through security and one for murder.

    This is precisely the problem with TSA, no accountability when they exceed their authority and those in management are never fired. Even police are subject to prosecution by victims. Not so for TSA employees and this must change.

    The TSA management and screeners responsible for this illegal activity should be prosecuted and the agency sued for billions.

Comments are closed.