Why you should care
Because not recognizing a gun or bomb in an airport security scanner can have serious consequences.
Could Thanksgiving travel be more dangerous than we all realize? Well, before downing a week’s worth of food in a few hours — danger enough in itself — about 3.55 million travelers will snake through airport security lines, struggle with shoes and wonder whether security agents are looking at them naked. But for all the hoopla, a study suggests that Transportation Security Administration agents fail to identify dangerous items at a much higher rate than you might think.
The vast majority of fliers will pass checkpoints without a hiccup, but, alas, so too might knives, guns and maybe even cocaine in raw meat. Sometimes these items just float across the screens of X-ray machines unnoticed, with the most infrequent (and dangerous) items having the highest chance of going undetected. Participants in a recent study, who were directed to monitor a surveillance screen, completely missed blatant threats 45 percent of the time.
The experiment replicates the experience of TSA agents, who get bombarded with images of innocent goods for hours and then are expected to pick out that one illegal object, says lead author Judith Gelernter, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University. To save energy, our brains won’t work to recognize something that happens once in a blue moon, even if our eyes see it, Gelernter tells OZY. It’s a problem that often has very high stakes. “If you’re looking for a criminal trying to blow up a plane, it’s an extremely dangerous cognitive challenge,” she says.
TSA found 35 guns, 29 of them loaded, in carry-on luggage throughout the U.S. during the week of Nov. 7.
Gelernter recruited 108 laypeople and conducted a short training session before putting the would-be security guards to a two-hour shift in front of a surveillance video screen. Participants were split into three groups based on how many times a threat would appear during the time period — two, nine and 25. Those who had two chances to catch the surprise events, like someone openly brandishing a knife, missed 45 percent of threats. But with 25 chances, the guards missed 25 percent.
Of course, unlike the study’s participants, TSA agents are professionals. Before going on duty, officers must receive 100 hours of training off and on the job, TSA press secretary Ross Feinstein wrote in an email. In addition, they are retrained and tested annually. The notion that more than a quarter of dangerous items sneak past TSA eyes is false, Feinstein asserted. “I disagree with that premise. Just check out how many prohibited items we stop each day on our blog,” he insisted.
I did, and although Gelernter’s participants were novices, finding two extreme threats in two hours is far easier than what TSA agents face. TSA found 35 guns, 29 of them loaded, in carry-on luggage throughout the U.S. during the week of Nov. 7. On average, 13.1 million passengers fly within the country per week. That means one in every 350,000 people tried to sneak a gun through security — it’s like playing ‘Where’s Waldo?’ in the Encyclopedia Britannica.
And despite advances in technology, Gelernter argues that the TSA hasn’t gotten much better in the last decade. It’s because the agency thinks annual training is sufficient. Gelernter recommends using artificial projections and plants throughout a normal workday to increase the frequency of threats. The more exposure agents have to prohibited items, the greater their ability to catch them. Maybe it’ll help them stay out of the press, too, like last year, when TSA inspectors at Newark Airport failed to detect a fake bomb stuffed in the pants of an undercover agent.
Cover image by Shutterstock.