Jeff and Christine's Homeland Security Blog

Homeland Security and Terrorism

Posts Tagged ‘John Pistole

Chat-downs: Behavioral Science at Work

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The Transportation Safety Agency (TSA) has a tough job, and it continues to look for ways to stop terrorists while minimizing inconvenience to legitimate travelers. Sometimes, the emphasis is on technology, but a successful pilot program involving focused questioning and observation by a trained officer shows that behavior analysis techniques work.

An article in Business Week magazine explains that the program will soon be expanded to a second site:

Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport joins Boston’s Logan International as a test site for the program, in which TSA employees briefly talk to passengers to assess whether they might be involved in terrorist activities. The technique has been called “chat-downs” by Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, ranking Democrat on the House homeland security committee, who has questioned whether it works. “

While there have been a number of naysayers about this technique, my main question is, “What took them so long to implement this method!” Behavior detection is the way to go for TSA and I would like to see this spread to include many more airports. The chat only takes a minute or two, and it can be very revealing of individuals’ motivations, fears and worries. People involuntarily show physical and physiological reactions to a fear of being discovered, and when briefly interviewed by authority figures, anxiety is intensified– allowing officers to detect these reactions. While electronic detection equipment has its place, focused observation is more likely to lead to an individual’s motivations and intentions.

According to the TSA website,

“The Behavior Detection Officer (BDO) program utilizes non-intrusive behavior observation and analysis techniques to identify potentially high-risk passengers. BDOs are designed to detect individuals exhibiting behaviors that indicate they may be a threat to aviation and/or transportation security. The program is a derivative of other successful behavioral analysis programs that have been employed by law enforcement and security personnel both in the U.S. and around the world.”

Many of TSA’s techniques have been pioneered by the Israelis, who have been struggling with the terror threat for much longer than the US has.

Behavior detection is a risk-based approach which allows TSA to focus its limited resources on making a determination whether someone is really a risk or not. This saves time for travelers who are non-threats and who can pass through these checks with no problems. It is not profiling, since determinations are made based on a number of factors including body language and responses to questions, and not on the religious or ethnic make-up of travelers. This is smart, given the fact that terrorists come from different religious and ethnic backgrounds.

This isn’t a new method; in fact, it has been practiced by the airlines for many, many years. For international flights, it has been common for airline personnel to ask questions of travelers such as whether they were given anything to pack, or whether they packed their own bags. This allowed airline staff to gauge reactions and focus limited resources on possible threats rather than mindlessly subjecting everyone to the same level of scrutiny.

Behavior detection is a risk based approach which is much needed in TSA’s methodology and is, at last, a logical way to proceed.  Those who don’t support this method may be basing their opposition on a basic misunderstanding of what it entails, since it relies on established behavioral analysis techniques and avoids the privacy and profiling pitfalls of alternative measures.