Can TSA Detect Behavior?

TSA security screening

The Government Accountability Office, those bean counters for Congress, say there is no evidence that the Transportation Security Administration’s behavior-detection program is effective. The early-warning program has about 3,000 TSA agents (uniformed and working in pairs) roaming 176 U.S. airports searching for suspicious behavior.

It costs taxpayers about $200 million a year. But science agrees with the GAC – human ability to identify deceptive behavior without conversation is a 50-50 proposition.

Last November, the GAO urged Congress to cut back funding.

Across the country, the GAO said Behavior Detection Officers (BDOs) averaged 1.6 referrals to law enforcement every 160 hours worked. But it varied greatly between airports. “Subjectivity and variation raise questions about continued use of behavioral indicators,” a representative from the GAO said.

The roaming TSA agents watch travelers for signs of stress, anxiety and lies, sometimes weighing in on casual conversation to dig deeper. It’s a narrow trench between crazed and crazy. Motivation counts for a lot. Since the fatal shooting of a TSA officer at LAX in November, BDOs have increased their surveillance.

BDOs scan travelers and use a point system to score suspicious behavior. It takes a clipboard full of indications to trigger a referral, which means the passenger is singled out for enhanced screening at checkpoints where, perhaps, the plot thickens and the facts collide.

During the screening, which averages 13 minutes, BDOs check travel documents and engage in conversation. If something suspicious is found or the traveler exhibits more nervous behavior, law enforcement is called.

For training, BDOs get five days in the classroom and two days on the job. Every year there’s a written test and shadowing by supervisors. There also is recurrent training. Is that cause for confidence?

TSA believes the program is a “vital part of a multilayered regimen,” crucial to the agency’s effort to get smarter about risk-based, targeted security.

TSA Administrator John Pistole, a onetime FBI honcho, says that law enforcement and military have been using behavior-detection techniques for generations.

BDOs hunt for 94 different indicators such as nervousness, sweating and heavy clothes in a warm climate. The tics to watch for were developed from FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration criteria. The BDOs are proactive in looking for bad people regardless of weapon.

TSA has faced complaints of racial profiling, or simply being too subjective with its referrals. Anecdotally, the GAO said 5 out of 25 BDOs interviewed believe some profiling was occurring. Of the 25 BDOs, 21 said some behavioral indicators are subjective.

An outside agency is now evaluating the 94 different indicators of suspicious behavior that BDOs use, trying to standardize a more manageable list with less subjectivity.

The Tarmac’s View: TSA says it prohibits racial profiling. Last year, they referred more than 2,100 passengers singled out by BDOs to local law enforcement, resulting in 181 arrests, plus an additional 79 investigations and 30 other boarding denials. The program has been criticized for grabbing people who pose no threat to aviation. Most arrests are for fake IDs and drug possession. But they’re trying to grapple with the big questions. I guess arrests are where you find them.

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Comments (Showing 2 of 2)

  • BearX220 at 6:14pm January 27, 2014

    Behavior can be detected by properly trained expert security professionals, but not by the TSA rank and file.

  • writerguyfl at 6:00am January 28, 2014

    BearX220 is correct. As part of my PhD program, I took a Crisis Negotiation course taught by an FBI agent. This guy had real-world experience as a hostage negotiator.

    Since terrorism often intersects crisis negotiation, we did discuss behavioral profiling. The professor told us that when properly trained, behavioral profiling works. However, the training takes months or years…not days. As such, he was 100% against any initiative run by the TSA.

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