Airport psych security: snake oil on a plane?

Nature has an extensive article on the ‘deception detection training’ that’s been widely rolled out for airport security staff and anti-terrorism police despite that fact that is has barely been publicly tested.

As we reported in 2007, a great deal of this training seems to be based on psychologist Paul Ekman’s various methods for focusing on facial expressions as a way of improving the ability to detect lies.

However, there is no convincing evidence that has been published in peer-reviewed journals to suggest it can actually improve the ability to pick up deception.

The actual technique, at least as used by the United States, is called Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques or SPOT, and was apparently created ‘in consultation’ with Ekman.

The Nature piece also discusses another technology Future Attribute Screening Technology or FAST, which essentially just looks to see if someone is stressed, with the idea that it can pick out potential terrorists, again with no public data available on its effectiveness.

Now, it could be that there are a great deal of classified test results that show how accurate these systems are, but if not, I suspect that physiological threat detection has barely moved on for 50 years and entirely relies on whether someone ‘looks shifty’ and is demonstrably stressed, probably back up with a bit of statistical modelling to sort through passenger characteristics.

However, the Nature article does a fantastic job of questioning the basis of the current technologies and asking to what extent they are high-tech snake oil.

Link to Nature ‘Airport security: Intent to deceive?’.

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