Recently, information came to light about part of a program implemented and used by the TSA since 2007 as a way to identify potential terrorists and subject them to closer inspection. The program has been criticized as being based on flawed scientific principles, and because none of the passengers detained were subsequently arrested for terrorist activities.
Yes, I get this. There is “no” scientific proof that this works. However, what’s lost in the study is that behavioral profiling is both natural and effective. We all do it. Those of us that do it better than others have learned to recognize risky situations (and avoid them), thus making us less susceptible to criminal activity. In fact, individuals with traumatic childhood experiences such as sexual or physical abuse, have proven to be even better at detecting violent intent or behaviors. It’s part of our survival process. We either learned to spot danger while searching for dinner, or we became dinner.
Every beat cop and Customs agent in the world can also tell you that they learn to identify baseline behaviors in certain situations, and they can also spot when individuals are not behaving in a manner consistent with the baseline. In an airport, people are nervous about flying, upset about going through screening, and long lines, and often outside of their element. THAT’s their baseline (so maybe we should watch for people who are having to good of a time at the airport!). There are also different baselines based on the type of traveler. A frequent business traveler exhibits different behaviors than a leisure traveller taking the kids out for a family vacation. These baselines can be spotted by any observant airport worker. The CIA, the FBI, ATF and other agencies have used behavior detection for years with great success during interrogations (much better than torture it seems).
The fact that “they haven’t caught any terrorists,” isn’t the only measurement here. How many terrorists have been deterred because of the presence of police and other security personnel? We don’t know. The only way to find out is to take all of them away and see what happens.
The Israeli’s have used these processes for years and the fact they continue to use them may be a testament to its success. The famous case of Anne Marie Murphy, who was stopped by an Israeli profiler in 1986 at the Heathrow airport as she was about to board an El Al flight carrying a bomb was the case that started the security questions here in the U.S. But that’s where the problem is – and that may be where the problem is with the TSA program: in the U.S. we told airline gate agents to ask a series of questions, the same questions every time, and if you answered wrong, you were sent to secondary screening. We didn’t truly adopt the Israeli methods – and when Pan Am airlines tried to, after the Lockerbie bombing, civil rights activist quickly squashed that process. After Ann Marie Murphy, we watered down a process, sterilized it and implemented it, then pretended it was the same thing.
The way the Israeli’s do it: the security personnel who decide if you’re flying that day, not airline personnel. They don’t ask the same questions. They ask a variety of questions and they remain flexible in their approach. THEN, the entire airport staff, not just a few trained teams, are trained behavior detection turning everyone into potential suspicious activity detectors. This also has a huge workplace violence prevention side – maybe if someone at Germanwings had noticed significant changes to the behavior of the first officer, that could have been reported and 150 people would still be alive.