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TSA wants to talk to you

It’s too early to tell if TSA’s new approach to behavior detection will work. Click here for full story.

Unfortunately, the United States has a history of taking something that works really well, adapts it, but not without taking out the thing that made it effective in the first place. Hopefully, this will not be the story with TSA’s new approach.

TSA rolled out the Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) a couple of years ago. This was largely an observation based process where the TSA looked for people exhibiting suspicious behavior. This advanced to the more formalized Behavior Detection Officers (BDO’s) program. This program trained Transportation Security Officers (TSO’s, more commonly known as screeners), for a couple of weeks, whereby the TSO was trained to spot eight different types of emotions – this process has been well covered by Paul Eckman’s research and in fact, it was Eckman’s microexpressions upon which the BDO program is based.

However, passive observation can only go so far. People at airports can display a variety of emotions, none of which have anything to do with criminal behavior. Anger or resentment? Maybe it’s todays friendly airline experience, not the willingness to do something bad.

This is a good example of taking something that works somewhere else, in this case Israel, the United Kingdom and many of the countries of the European Union, defanging it, then still telling everyone it’s a vicious dog. We’ve done this before in fact. In 1986, when Israeli security personnel stopped Anne Marie Murphy from getting a bomb on an El Al flight, U.S. FAA officials thought it sounded like a pretty good idea and implemented it here in the States. However, instead of using trained security personnel to do the questioning, they tasked airline ticket agent personnel and provided them zero training in identifying suspicious behavior. These questions would continue to be used until after 9/11/01 and to date, I don’t think any terrorist was caught using this technique.

Based on Administrator Pistole’s general approach to security, I would guess that the new program more closely emulates the Israeli model. What is difficult to determine is whether the program will actually catch anyone? My guess? Probably not at first. Well, it may grab up some morons with outstanding warrants, a few illegal immigrants and your local gentry who are already in trouble with the law. But a terrorist? Don’t count on it.

Think for a moment. If you were a terrorist, would you try to go through the airport where they are testing new security techniques, particularly those that are very difficult to bypass? No. The thinking terrorist will avoid this airport and others, and wait until the Court of Public Opinion weighs in. Let GAO publish a report saying that the TSA hasn’t caught anything, then maybe toss in a local lawsuit from someone who thinks they’ve been unfairly profiled. Then maybe public pressure and a lack of measurable results will push the TSA away.

What should happen is that the program is fairly assessed – as fairly as you can assess a program that’s designed to both deter and detect criminal activity, and the program should be expanded and implemented as part of the normal security process. Maybe one day it catches the next Anne Marie Murphy – or maybe it just deters the bad guys in which case, it’s effective, we just don’t know it.

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2 Responses to TSA wants to talk to you

  1. Of everything I’ve learned, I believe this is entirely true. Students at ERAU in Prescott, AZ take a class concerning deception, and I’ve taken a class about personality and profiling. An individual that is not trained in observing baseline behavior and comparing it to normal behavior is about 50/50 in guessing anomalies. Tossing an individual into a situation and asking them to look for unusual behavior isn’t effective. Such an officer would need to be highly trained. However, I would imagine such an officer could be highly effective.

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