It’s finally gone too far

If you’re not aware of the ramifications of TSA’s new pat-down policy, click here. If the link is still active, what you likely saw was a TSA screener appearing to conduct a pat down search of a a small boy. Yea, I know it looks like he’s feeling him up, but according to our government this is a necessary process to protect the flying public.

Okay, it’s now officially gone too far. I of all people understand that kids, women, the developmentally disabled, and the elderly have all been used to smuggle bombs, carry bombs, or other criminal or terrorist purposes, but there is a much BETTER way to do this. There is a process we can use that with one look, would have told the screener that that particular kid is not a threat.

First, let’s look at the options for screening individuals, then you can determine (or weigh in if you disagree) as to what the best method(s) are.

Since the 1970s, passengers have passed through walk-thru metal detectors. We know they don’t detect explosives, so what are our other options? There are basically 6 options for screening people for explosives: (1) body imagers, (2) portal trace detectors, (3) behavior detection, (4) physical pat downs, (5) electronic screening of passenger information prior to boarding – i.e. TSA’s Secure Flight but at a much higher level, and (6) thorough background checks on passengers.

Keep in mind that privacy rights groups have issues with ALL of these methods. Sorry, can’t make everyone happy – my goal is to not have to give up a ton of rights either, but also to make sure I can safely board a plane with my family without having my kids molested in the process. And to be fair, I’m sure most TSA screeners don’t look forward to patting down the general public anymore than we want to be patted down. I’m not pointing the finger at them (unless you touch my kid!), I’m pointing at this policy that needs serious review.

Let’s back out items 5 and 6 right now. While they can be effective, pretty much only so as a layer, not a process that you’d bet your life on.

That leaves us with body imaging, portal trace (known as the Puffers), behavior detection and pat-down.

Body imagers come with privacy issues, they are slower than walk-thru metal detectors, but they are quicker than pat-down, less physically intrusive and the imagery is viewed remotely (I’m sure you can see yourself on YouTube later though — even though we’ve been told these machines do not store images, it’s now been shown that they do — but who cares, it’s not like anyone can identify you with that fuzzy image). They are effective at detecting most threat objects including explosives, guns and knives.

Portal trace detectors were rolled out after two Chechan suicide bombers brought down 2 Russian airliners in 2004. Keep in mind this wasn’t the first time a suicide airliner bombing had occurred, but it was the first time the government really took notice. The “puffers” as they were called were slow, had a high breakdown rate and you still had to go through the metal detector because they don’t detect metal, like guns and knives. The puffers were pulled out of airports due to their breakdown rate and to make room for the deployment of the body imagers.

Pat-down: the most intrusive, embarrassing process you can subject the individual too. Not only passengers, but airline and airport employees must go through this with even more frequency. It takes longer than any of the other processes and comes with all sorts of bad implications. I’m sure some child molester, after seeing the LA times photo, ran to find the nearest TSA application.

Behavior detection: non-intrusive, highly effective when done properly, takes the smallest amount of time of all of the processes. The problems here go back to the old “profiling” argument – that people are being selected based on race or nationality. This argument is as old as law enforcement itself. The other challenge here is a GAO report released earlier this year that showed that TSA’s BDO’s failed to spot potential terrorists that passed through U.S. airports. TSA points to the fact that many people have been arrested based on BDO detection, but for outstanding warrants, illegal immigrant status, or something other than terrorism.

The debate rages on as to whether this process is effective but I wholeheartedly believe in it. Here’s why: The Israeli’s relied on it so heavily that for a period of time they relied more on their security questioning/behavior process than physical screening equipment. The U.K. has adopted a similar model and is already reporting successes. This type of process is also what stopped an individual from blowing up an El Al flight departing Heathrow in 1986, whereas tons of stuff gets through technology based checkpoints every day.

So what are we doing wrong here and how can we implement something that works and keeps screeners from feeling us up at the checkpoints?

First, some reality with respect to the GAO report. Maybe the bad guys who came through U.S. airports didn’t encounter any BDO’s. With some 800,000 million passengers going through U.S. airports and only about 3,000 BDO’s it’s possible that they just missed each other. Or, maybe the bad guys had no ill intent that day they were at the airport, and thus exhibited no signs. Remember, it’s very difficult to measure something like deterrence — it’s difficult to know if a deterrent measure resulted in the bad guys saying “we don’t want to go that way because of . . .” Unfortunately, the bad guys don’t often call us and let us know when some measure we’ve implemented actually deterred them.

Second, we have to look at why these programs are successful everywhere else but here. The science of this is dubious and to being a researcher myself, I agree…to some extent. I think body language psychology is more art than science. Ever watch the TV poker tournaments? The entire process is based on two things, knowledge of statistics (playing the game well) and “reading” your opponent. When science is having problems proving things, I fall back to the old adage and ask, does it work anyway? If it works, then there must be something to it, and we just haven’t figured out the science behind it yet. However, there has been recent movements towards using technology to detect deception. Again, the old argument that we will be “saved” by technology, but just remember that the studies on the effectiveness of technology is often conducted by the companies interested in selling the technology.

Third, when I talk about the use of behavior detection, I’m not talking about the exclusive use of that strategy. Initial passenger screening should begin with the booking of the ticket — do a name check. If they’re a bad guy, arrest them, if they are a suspect, give them additional scrutiny when they get to the airport. At the airport, behavior detection should take over in the form of officers at the queue lines, talking to passengers. This process will have to be refined because there is a big gap between what a BDO suspects and what a cop can do about it. Plus, it seems the training can be better — let’s analyze what others are doing and see where we’ve potentially watered down the process here.

Then, individuals who either through their travel documentation or behavior that exhibit warning signs, should be given secondary screening, to include explosive trace detection, body imaging, or if they do not want to be “imaged” then private pat down screening.

Using this process effectively, we’ll start focusing on the bad guys and quit molesting kids at the checkpoint, in the “name” of security.

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