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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 ]

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