Airports to Begin Behavior Profiling What's behind a simple chat with an airport baggage screener? Edgy airline passengers are about to come under special scrutiny by the Transportation Security Administration.
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Airports to Begin Behavior Profiling

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Airports to Begin Behavior Profiling

Airports to Begin Behavior Profiling

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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If you've flown through Logan Airport in the last two years, perhaps you've noticed the screeners are more interested in chatting with you. That's because Logan for the past two years has implemented a behavior profiling technique designed to detect subtle cues, clues that terrorists and criminals could display. The TSA has announced plans to train screeners at 40 other airports in the technique, looking at subconscious gestures, facial expressions and analyzing answers to simple questions. Many of you are traveling during this holiday week. Let us know how you feel about behavior profiling. Does it make you feel safer? Or if you're a law enforcement officer who's been trained in these techniques, we'd love to hear from you. Our number is (800) 989-TALK; that's (800) 989-8255.

Joining me here in Studio 3A is Thomas Frank, reporter from USA Today. He wrote about it in a cover story for that paper, and he's here to tell us about it.


Mr. THOMAS FRANK (USA Today): Good to be here.

SEABROOK: What exactly is behavior pattern recognition?

Mr. FRANK: Well, behavior pattern recognition actually is a trademark phrase by a gentleman who used to be the head of security at Israel's Ben Gurion Airport. And it's--you used the word `profiling'; that's sort of a tricky word. It's really looking at the way people act in an airport setting or any setting and trying to detect anomalies in their behavior. You know, the most glaring one would be--is someone wearing a heavy wool coat in the summertime. Others might be does someone look like they're scoping or surveilling an airport, or do people look unreasonably nervous? If you ask them, `Hey, how you doing? Where are you flying today?' and they can't answer that question or they don't know what their flight number is, things that maybe indicate that someone isn't at an airport necessarily to fly.

SEABROOK: You know, my first reaction to this is, gosh, I better not have four cups of Starbucks before I go through the screening line.

Mr. FRANK: Right, right. Well, they--and people get that question a lot. How can you discern whether someone's a nervous flier? 'Cause some people are nervous about flying as opposed to being nervous because they're going to blow up an airplane. And the TSA and the people who have done this insist that there is a difference between someone who is a nervous flier and someone who's nervous because they're a criminal. Some of it has to do with how someone interacts with law enforcement. You know, another classic sign of someone who's up to no good would be someone who avoids eye contact with law enforcement or is maybe afraid or reluctant to interact. You know, a police gets on an elevator and suddenly--you know, most times when you see a police officer, you're automatically inclined to look at the person because they're an authority figure. But a lot of people--a hint is considered if someone looks down, looks away, avoids eye contact.

I had a person at Logan who works for the TSA tell me that he watched a tape of three of the hijackers go through Dulles Airport, and he said that he could tell by watching them go through the security checkpoint because they all looked down and none of them looked at the security guard who was operating the metal detector. He said, `That to me was a clue.' Now he didn't say, you know, `If I was there, I would have pulled these guys over,' because that's all--that's hindsight that you can't rely on.

But there are behaviors, and there's also--there's a body of thought in psychology that says you can tell when people are lying. There have been some studies done in labs, mind you, not in the field, that have shown, for example, Secret Service agents are very good at telling whether people are lying, which, if you think about it, makes sense 'cause that's sort of what they're trained to do. They're trained to observe people, and based on looking at people, does something not look right?

SEABROOK: What kinds of questions are these screeners asking people?

Mr. FRANK: It's really incredibly benign. I watched it happen at Logan for about an hour, and the questions are really `How you doing? Where you headed? What are you doing? Why are you going there?' It's really small talk, basically.

SEABROOK: And, you know, once you set up a profile, any kind of profile, can't you just train yourself to not, you know, fall into it?

Mr. FRANK: That's the good question. Can it be defeated? Can terrorists...


Mr. FRANK: ...train themselves to--`All right. I'm going to rehearse all the answers to this, and when I ever see a police officer, I'm going to'--and it's an open question. The fact is there really haven't been studies yet about whether a well-trained terrorist can defeat it. Some of the question is how well-trained are terrorists, and some of the terrorists who have been used are--they're not terribly well-trained. A lot of them are, you know, people who aren't highly educated. But the question is whether there's going to be more training of terrorists, and are they specifically going to try and defeat this kind of system?

SEABROOK: Thomas Frank, hang on. We're going to go to some of listeners. Let's start with John in Salt Lake City.

John, I understand you're a police officer.

JOHN (Caller): Yes, I am.

SEABROOK: And so what do you think of this?

JOHN: Well, I guess I'll start my comment out with a question. My question is: What is the outcome should somebody fit a particular profile? And my rationale behind that is that particularly people with mental illnesses, but you can have somebody that's simply preoccupied. And there's a lot of truth to being able to detect whether or not someone's lying, but the depth of education and training you have to have to be able to do that seems quite significant.

SEABROOK: Good quest...

JOHN: So my question is what's the outcome if you do find somebody like that...

Mr. FRANK: Right.

JOHN: ...who fits the profile?

SEABROOK: It's a good question, John. I mean...

Mr. FRANK: Yeah, it's a good question. And what the TSA is doing might be called behavior pattern recognition light, so to speak, 'cause TSA screeners aren't police officers; they don't have the power of arrest. They can't detain people.

SEABROOK: They don't have the training. They don't make the money.

Mr. FRANK: Well, they will get training. And they don't make the money of police, but what--the way it will work with the TSA is if the TSA screener talks to you and finds something's wrong, what will happen is you will go through what's called secondary screening--you know, you've been through it--where they say, `All right, you know, you gotta take off your shoes and we're going to, you know, wand you.' And they'll ask you a few more questions. And if they continue to feel suspicious, then they'll call in whoever the airport police are, which will take it from there.

SEABROOK: What about John's question about mental illness? We saw just several weeks ago...

Mr. FRANK: Right.

SEABROOK: ...apparently mentally ill passenger on a plane was shot dead after an outburst on a plane.

Mr. FRANK: Right. I don't know whether this would be able to pick up whether someone's mentally ill or not. I mean, this issue did come up after the shooting in Miami by the federal air marshal.

SEABROOK: We're talking about behavior profiling among baggage screeners in your airports.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go back to the phones. Let's talk to J.R. in Phoenix. Hi. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

J.R. (Caller): Yes.

SEABROOK: Hello? Yes. Go ahead.

J.R.: Yes. I think that this field has a lot of validity, and I think it should be used quite often. I am in the security community. I do different types of behavioral analysis at work. And...

SEABROOK: What kind of behavior analysis?

J.R.: I'm sorry?

SEABROOK: What are you looking for at work?

J.R.: Basically honesty from employees.

SEABROOK: And this is just something that you apply in sort of a layman's way, yes?

J.R.: Correct.


J.R.: And you use a lot of--you establish norms just like the gentleman was talking about, through just benign conversation, and then you can pick up different behavioral clues--you know, the trained individual can--and determine whether or not the person is being deceptive.

SEABROOK: Thanks for your call, J.R.

And let me ask you, Thomas Frank, how is it being used? I mean, it's also being used by police officers. Our caller just said he's sort of using it on his own. I mean, what other organizations are using this?

Mr. FRANK: Well, it's being used--the roots of this, actually, I believe, are in Israel at the airport there, where there's very aggressive questioning which could never be done in the US. It's just a different attitude and atmosphere.

SEABROOK: Because of privacy concerns?

Mr. FRANK: Because of privacy; because there's no Fourth Amendment in Israel. They don't care about racial profiling. People have many fewer rights. The questioning in Israel is much more aggressive. It's been used in the--I was actually questioned 10 years ago at Heathrow Airport. Some police officer came and said, `Hey, where are you going? What are you doing?' 'cause I was sitting in there with a backpack. And it's been--it really started in the US with the Massachusetts State Police, who are the police agency at Logan Airport. They started about three years ago. Some other airport police agencies that are using it are Dallas, Minneapolis-St. Paul. It's being used here in Washington, the Washington Metropolitan; the subway police and bus police use it. The New York City transit workers use it. So it's being used in those kind of cities. And the TSA has used it for the last two or three years at five airports in Boston and Minneapolis; Providence, Rhode Island; Portland and Bangor, Maine.

SEABROOK: And the American Civil Liberties Union, other groups, aren't particularly excited about this behavior profiling. Why?

Mr. FRANK: Right. The concern is--I think it goes to the fact that one's perception of behavior can be influenced by one's own prejudices. So there have been studies, for example, that show you take a bunch of people and show them photos of both whites and minorities, and white people who are subjects in the study are much more likely to assign criminal and nefarious intent to blacks who are depicted than blacks are. So I may say as a white person, `Huh, this person looks suspicious,' and it's not--the concern is that police will not be reacting to the behavior, but will be reacting to the person's race. And that's really a matter of training.

SEABROOK: Let's go to Jimmy in Oklahoma. Hi. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

JIMMY (Caller): Hi. I'm just wondering if--by any chance, if you guys have any considerations for the person's culture when you're profiling them. Just because I know in some cultures like, for example, the Navajos, consider it disrespectful to look at somebody in the eye, in the eyes. It's just considered disrespectful. I'm just wondering whether you guys take that into consideration.

SEABROOK: Thanks for your call, Jimmy.

Mr. FRANK: Yeah, it's...

SEABROOK: And, Thomas Frank, you don't profile yourself; you cover these people.

Mr. FRANK: I don't profile, yeah. No, it's an excellent question, and I think that's also true in some Arab cultures, that looking people directly in eye is seen as a challenge. It's a good question, and I don't know the honest answer, but my guess is that, you know, in the US, in this climate, that that would be part of the training would be to understand that different responses--and the other thing is it's not just--this behavior detection isn't based on just a quick snapshot. It's a process whereby--it's sort of like resolving an alarm if, you know, you walk through a metal detector and set off an alarm, where there's a process for figuring out whether you're a threat or whether you're not, and it's a strange sort of thing. If you trigger a psychological alarm in a screener's head, they will go through a series of questions and protocols, so that if it turns out that, well, you're not looking at me because that's the way you do it, then hopefully they can resolve that.

SEABROOK: Thomas Frank is a reporter for USA Today. He joined us here in Studio 3A.

Thanks very much.

Mr. FRANK: You're welcome.

SEABROOK: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook in Washington.

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