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TSA Behavior-Recognition Program Questions Airline Passengers

First Posted: 10/05/11 03:54 PM ET Updated: 12/04/11 05:12 AM ET


BOSTON -- Katherine Dombrowski wasn't expecting a quiz as she waited in the TSA security line at Boston's Logan International Airport. But that's what she got Monday morning after handing her boarding pass and driver's license to a blue-shirted security officer at the checkpoint.

Where had she been? Visiting her father on Cape Cod, said the former Bostonian. Where was she going? A trade show in San Jose, Calif. And you live where now? Virginia.

"Have a good flight," the officer cheerfully said as he handed back her documents.

Taking her place in line at the metal detector, Dombrowski called the exchange "terrific."

"I think it's okay to just get a gut read on people. I don't feel it's intrusive at all -- I've got nothing to hide."

But a New Yorker ahead of her in line who declined to give his name was irritated at having to share that he'd been at a family wedding and had stayed at a Holiday Inn. Especially since he was late for his flight home. "I didn't understand the necessity," he grumbled.

For travelers who questioned the necessity of "naked" body scanners and still chafe when taking off their shoes at the airport, the Transportation Security Administration's latest defense against another 9/11-style terrorist attack is either a friendly conversation or a nosy "chat-down."

Regardless of description, it may be the future. The new conversational screening practices that the TSA tested this month at Logan's Terminal A are likely to expand to Detroit and other airports this fall, even as industry, privacy and security experts determine whether this latest counterterrorism tactic is worth the expense or the hassle.

"Over the last 10 years, TSA has added layer upon layer upon layer (of screening) without conducting a real, risk-based approach," said Erik Hansen, director of domestic policy at the U.S. Travel Association, a travel industry advocacy group. "We hope TSA is getting away from the Hobson's Choice that you can't have efficiency and security at the same time."

Under the TSA's new expanded behavior detection program, screeners schmooze up passengers to spot whether they have something to hide. As they chat, the TSA officer listens for inconsistencies in a passenger's story and notes whether the person is nervous, sweating or avoiding eye contact. Those exhibiting suspicious behavior are sent for additional screening that may include pat-downs and luggage searches.

"Everybody is a little nervous and on edge at the airport -- that has to be discounted," said George Naccara, TSA security director at Logan. "We want to discern the anomalies that are excessively out of the norm."

The program is part of a larger effort by TSA Administrator John Pistole, a former FBI counterterrorism official, to move away from a "one-size-fits-all" approach that treats all travelers as suspect. His mantra of "risk-based, intelligence-driven security" prioritizes "focusing resources on those we know the least about, and using intelligence in better ways to inform the screening process."

As part of that, on Tuesday, the TSA launched the pilot program PreCheck, which provides speed screening for a small number of passengers who voluntarily provide information before they travel. The agency has also moved to implement expedited screening for airline crews after years of limited testing of the new procedure by the Airline Pilots Association (ALPA) on the East Coast.

The TSA modified its highly criticized pat-down policy for children and sped screening for elderly veterans traveling to Washington to visit the World War II Memorial.

In addition, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has said airline passengers will eventually get to keep their shoes on as they go through security checkpoints.

The changes, unthinkable a decade ago, are only now being seriously discussed thanks to improvements in intelligence and screening made in the years after the attacks of Sept. 11. Stephen Luckey, former head of ALPA's national security committee, called them long overdue.

"We have been using a very inefficient approach to security," he said. "We waste a lot of time doing everything to everyone and being politically correct [because] the government assumes everyone is a potential bad person. This is a disaster. If we apply the same scrutiny to all it ends up being costly and ineffective. We need a cultural shift to look for good people and reward them" with faster screening.

Can You "SPOT" Bad Behavior?

Logan was a logical choice to try out the new pilot program. Two of the four planes hijacked on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, took off from that airport before crashing in to New York's World Trade Center towers. Logan has since worked hard to make improvements. While gun-toting Massachusetts state troopers still roam the terminals, its biggest contribution to security has been to host dozens of tests of security measures that were later applied in airports across the country.

"You name it, we've tried it," said Phil Orlandella of the Massachusetts Port Authority, which operates the airport.

After the attacks, Massachusetts state police working at Logan were the first to adopt behavior-pattern recognition like that used at Israel's Ben-Gurion International Airport. Officers were trained to observe passengers from a distance and interrogate those whose facial expressions, body language or other behaviors aroused suspicion.

That state policy program would eventually form the basis for the federal Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques, or SPOT, program. It was first introduced at Logan in 2003 and now employs about 3,000 behavior detection officers who keep a sharp eye on passengers at 161 U.S. airports. The TSA pilot program underway here expands on SPOT by adding casual conversation with every passenger to the security mix.

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