ould a program detect potential terrorists by reading their facial expressions and behavior? This was the hypothesis put to the test by the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in 2003, as it began testing a new surveillance program called the Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques program, or Spot for short.
While developing the program, they consulted Paul Ekman, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of California, San Francisco. Decades earlier, Ekman had developed a method to identify minute facial expressions and map them on to corresponding emotions. This method was used to train “behavior detection officers” to scan faces for signs of deception.
But when the program was rolled out in 2007, it was beset with problems. Officers were referring passengers for interrogation more or less at random, and the small number of arrests that came about were on charges unrelated to terrorism. Even more concerning was the fact that the program was allegedly used to justify racial profiling.
Ekman tried to distance himself from Spot, claiming his method was being misapplied. But others suggested that the program’s failure was due to an outdated scientific theory that underpinned Ekman’s method; namely, that emotions can be deduced objectively through analysis of the face.