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Feeling Nervous? 3,000 Behavior Detection Officers Will Be Watching You at the Airport This Thanksgiving

Nearly 100,000 passengers were pulled aside by TSA behavior watchers last year, and it remains to be proven whether you can spot terrorists by the looks on their faces. Here’s a question to ponder the next time you’re taking off your shoes at airport security: Can you spot terrorists by the look on their faces?

Nearly 100,000 passengers were pulled aside by TSA behavior watchers last year, and it remains to be proven whether you can spot terrorists by the looks on their faces.

Here’s a question to ponder the next time you’re taking off your shoes at airport security: Can you spot terrorists by the look on their faces?

For the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the answer is yes. For the past few years, airports across the country have been using what many call “behavioral surveillance” to weed out potential hijackers among us, by covertly examining travelers’ facial expressions and body language as they go through security. Unlike those airport employees who herd us along as we remove our shoes and relinquish all liquids over three ounces (with dubious results), this new program, named “Screening Passengers by Observational Techniques,” or “SPOT,” is carried out by TSA employees who have been trained to monitor travelers’ faces and movements. As Americans head out of town this holiday season, more than 3,000 “Behavior Detection Officers” will be at 161 airports nationwide, watching our every move.

Tthe TSA boasts that the SPOT program is “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.” Yet, the success of the SPOT program remains highly questionable. This month the Washington Post reported that, in 2008 alone, Behavior Detection Officers across the country pulled 98,805 passengers aside for additional screenings, out of which 9,854 were questioned by local police. 813 were eventually arrested.

The cost of the program, according to TSA spokesperson Ann Davis, was $3.1 million.

In an e-mail correspondence with AlterNet, Davis could not say how many of the 813 arrests led to convictions — or for that matter, whether any terrorists were caught. “Many of the SPOT cases that resulted in arrests remain under active investigation by law enforcement,” she said. “TSA doesn’t always hear back from the investigative agencies on the outcome of the cases so we cannot track convictions.”

But as Stephen Soldz, Director of the Center for Research, Evaluation, and Program Development at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis points out, “Even if the arrests are justified, they are less than 1 percent of the total singled out. What happens to more than 9,000 who are subjected to questioning and released?”

This question cuts to the heart of protests by civil liberties advocates and others who argue that, not only is the SPOT program a violation of people’s privacy, but it is actually counterproductive, a wasteful exercise in false positives.

“By the math alone, rare events are impossible to accurately detect,” says Soldz. “One will either miss most of what one is interested in [false negatives] or else identify many people falsely [false positives].”

ACLU attorney Jay Stanley concurs. “The problem with the SPOT program,” he told AlterNet, “is that it is based on trying to stop terrorism by searching for supposed ‘signs of terrorism’ that are so commonplace that it results in an increase in the monitoring of individuals to no good end.”

“We Need to Use Them Everywhere”

Like the Department of Homeland Security that oversees it, the SPOT program is a post-9/11 phenomenon, partly inspired by the surveillance tapes that showed the 9/11 hijackers making their way through security at Boston’s Logan Airport.

According to TSA analyst Carl Maccario, each man kept his eyes low to the ground, avoiding the gaze of the airport security guards. “They all looked away and had their heads down,” he told USA Today in 2005. As the federal government looked for new ways to augment its counterterror tools after the attacks, the TSA set out to develop a program that would seek to identify would-be terrorists based on this type of behavior. Like the Pentagon, FBI, and CIA, the TSA sought out an army of psychologists to lend their expertise.

Key among them was Dr. Paul Ekman, a San Francisco-based psychologist and pioneer in the study of deceit and “microexpressions” — the subtle, involuntary ways in which our faces betray our inner emotions. Ekman received a call from Maccario in 2005. “They were really contacting everyone who was doing any kind of work in this area,” he recalled, in an interview with AlterNet. Maccario asked him to come on board as an adviser to the SPOT program.

Ekman visited Logan Airport, where a pilot version of SPOT was being implemented. What he saw impressed him enough that he wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post in 2006, praising the program.

“SPOT’s officers, working in pairs, stand off to the side, scanning passengers at a security checkpoint for signs of any behaviors on the officers’ checklist, such as repeated patting of the chest — which might mean that a bomb is strapped too tightly under a person’s jacket — or a micro-expression,” he wrote.

Ekman argued that the 9/11 hijackers had deception written all over their faces, but that tragically, no one was in a position to detect it. “The hijackers’ lies — to visa interviewers and airport check-in workers — succeeded largely because airport personnel weren’t taught how to spot liars, he wrote. “They had to rely on their hunches. The people who might have saved the lives of many Americans were needlessly handicapped.”

“Observational techniques are not a substitute for all the other techniques we now use to catch would-be terrorists,” Ekman concluded. “But they add another layer to transportation security. They are now being used at fewer than one in 10 major U.S. airports. We need to use them everywhere.”

Three years later, the SPOT program has been vastly expanded, going beyond airports nationwide. According to Davis, the TSA “regularly deploys SPOT-trained officers to other transportation venues, including mass transit and rail stations.”

But if the 2008 data is any indication, even trained officers cannot easily differentiate between a person who is acting nervous because he or she is, say, afraid of flying, and a nervous person who is armed and dangerous. (Even Ekman’s Washington Post article described a “fidgety” man, “slumped in line, staring at the ground,” who was occasionally gripped with a “momentary look of anguish.” He was taken aside and questioned by Boston police, who discovered that the man was no terrorist — his brother had just died unexpectedly, and he was on his way to his funeral.)

“Real life is not like in a spy thriller where people can magically perceive the people who have something to hide,” says Stanley. “When people are asked to detect wrongdoing based on overbroad signs,” he adds, “the usual result is racial profiling.”

Catching Bad Guys?

The TSA has not released data on the almost 99,000 people who were pulled aside by Behavior Detection Officials, last year, or the 9,854 who were questioned by police. But for the overwhelming majority, who were innocent of any wrongdoing, the result has been harassment, aggravation, and missed flights at best, a violation of their rights at worst.

Not to mention wasted time and resources by security agents and law enforcement.

TSA spokesperson Ann Davis cites the “deterrent value” of the program as something that “cannot be overstated” — “SPOT adds another layer of security to the airport environment and presents the terrorists with yet one more challenge they need to overcome in attempt to defeat our security system” — but the claim is fairly impossible to prove.

Also, she argues, “we may not know if the people SPOT caught in the country illegally, using fake passports or IDs or smuggling money or drugs were doing so to assist with a larger plot.”

Indeed, critics point out that the relatively small number of arrests that have come out of the SPOT program have been mostly people with fake IDs and undocumented immigrants, but there’s not much evidence that any of them had plans to carry out a terrorist attack. Still, the notion that there’s anything wrong with detaining these people anyway strikes Ekman as odd. “I would think that the American public would not feel badly that they are catching money or drug smugglers, or wanted felons for serious crimes,” he says. “I didn’t think that was a bad thing.”

But if the primary duty of the TSA is to keep travelers and transportation hubs safe, expending resources on ordinary crime-fighting would seem to be a distraction from weeding out actual potential terrorists.

This, argues Ekman, is just the nature of behavior surveillance. “Nature didn’t design us in a way that we have a different appearance if we are a terrorist compared to a wanted rapist,” he says. “You’re basically catching what they call ‘bad guys.’ You’re not catching a specific type of bad guy.”

Can Anyone Be a Human Lie Detector?

One might describe Dr. Paul Ekman as a true believer, both in human capacity to detect deceit — “Anybody can learn how to recognize concealed emotions,” he tells me. “It takes about an hour” — as well as the need for behavior surveillance in the post-9/11 era. If the TSA SPOT program is not as effective as it could be, he argues, it is because it’s underfunded.

“I do not think Congress is taking it as seriously as it should,” he says. “I hope we do not have to wait until there’s some disaster before [spending on the program] is increased.”

More money might mean more Behavior Detection Officers. But ideally it might mean more training as well. The positions require no scientific background; training in the art of lie detection takes place over the course of less than a week — “four days of classroom instruction in behavior observation/analysis and 24 hours of on-the-job-training in an airport security checkpoint environment,” according to Davis. The average Behavior Detection Officer position pays anywhere between $31,411 and $56,964 a year, depending on where they work. “Would more training be better?” asks Ekman. “Probably. But TSA operates within a budget that Congress gives them and they’re doing the best they can do given that budget.”

Ekman cites Israel, the country that largely pioneered the use of behavior surveillance as one place where similar programs have proven effective. The U.S. program was inspired in large part by Israel’s; Ekman himself has been a consultant to the Israeli government for 20 years.

For Jay Stanley, this is nothing to be proud of. “There are real questions about whether the Israeli system is as sophisticated as its boosters say or whether in isn’t truly just a system of racial profiling,” he says. “… In any case, there are only 6.5 million Israelis, but 300 million Americans … it is doubtful that Israel’s system could scale to the U.S. airline transportation system.”

Stanley argues that the SPOT program overemphasizes the capacity for people to act as human lie detectors. “Studies show that people are actually very bad at detecting lies and typically overestimate their ability to do so,” he says. In an airport, he adds, “people have a million reasons to be nervous or anxious. In fact, if you’re in today’s airports and you’re not a little crazed there’s almost something wrong with you.”

For his part, Ekman seems intent on popularizing the science of lie detection. He is an adviser on the new FOX drama “Lie to Me,” which is is based on him and his work; Ekman is an adviser on every script and writes critiques of each episode on his website. He also markets and sells interactive kits on his website, ranging from $20 to $69, that promise to train customers in the finer points of facial and micro-expressions. The kits, he says, are “really for anybody who wants to learn how to recognize emotion: doctors, nurses, salespeople, negotiators, bargainers, suspicious spouses, law enforcement … there are tens of thousands of people who learn that.”

“But,” he warns, “you can’t turn it off once you’ve learned it. I try to warn people you may not always like what you see.”

Do the Ends Justify the Means?

Since 9/11, the FBI has started training all new recruits in non-verbal behavior analysis. The CIA has been conducting research on how to use computers to recognize micro-expressions. Also in the works is a new initiative by the Department of Homeland Security that “uses various ways of measuring your physiology as you walk by in the hopes of picking up signs of people who are intending to do harm.” The Orwellian-named “Future Attribute Screening Technology,” or FAST, would measure such things as heart rate, breathing, and body temperature. (“It’s not being used because it’s still in the research phase,” says Ekman, “but I’m one of their advisers.”) The civil liberties questions raised by such potential programs make the SPOT program look tame by comparison.

One politician who has been an outspoken critic of the TSA’s SPOT program is former Georgia Congressman Bob Barr. In a recent column in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, he decried the new initiatives in the works as “yet another step in [the TSA and DHS’s] relentless drive to bring ‘1984’ front and center to America’s airports.”

“Eager always to take advantage of the willingness of passengers to surrender all sense of privacy if made to feel safe, DHS is spending millions of our tax dollars to develop technology that would remotely monitor certain bodily functions and alert TSA employees whenever someone is exuding signs of nervousness,” he wrote.

Ekman dismisses concerns that the TSA’s officers are violating anyone’s rights. “They don’t do this in the men’s room,” he told AlterNet. “They look at you while you’re standing in line, which is a very public place. So I don’t think it’s an invasion of privacy.”

Regardless of these questiosn, the SPOT program continues to be expanded. In January, Behavior Detection Officers were dispatched to Tampa, Florida to “look for suspicious behavior,” among spectators attending Super Bowl XLIII at Raymond James Stadium. The ACLU raised alarm over the implications. As analyst Barry Steinhardt told USA Today, “If we’re going to use this at high-profile sporting events, why not start using it on streets?”

From violations of privacy to racial discrimination, or the ACLU has filed numerous lawsuits seeking to curb the ever-expanding authority of the TSA. Earlier this year, the the ACLU sued the TSA for its detaining of a traveler who was stopped and questioned by officers after he was found to be carrying some $4,700 in cash at the Lambert-St. Louis International Airport in March. The man, Steven Bierfeldt, a former treasurer for the Ron Paul presidential campaign, was taken to a room and questioned about the cash. According to the ACLU, “Bierfeldt repeatedly asked the agents to explain the scope of their authority to detain and interrogate him and received no explanation.”

“Instead, the agents escalated the threatening tone of their questions and ultimately told Bierfeldt that he was being placed under arrest. Bierfeldt recorded audio of the incident with his iPhone.”

In September the TSA revised its policy to emphasize that “screening may not be conducted to detect evidence of crimes unrelated to transportation security.” (Soon thereafter, it added that “traveling with large amounts of currency is not illegal,” among other directives.) Earlier this month, the ACLU dropped the suit.

“This new policy provides much needed clarity to TSA screeners and reflects the critical requirement that TSA agents must adhere to their important but limited mandate of protecting flight safety,” said Ben Wizner, an attorney with the ACLU National Security Project. “The airport is not a Constitution-free zone, and the price of traveling is not exposure to limitless government searches.”

The TSA continues to vigorously defended its policies as “non-intrusive” and critical to national security. TSA spokseperson Suzanne Trevino denied that the low arrest rates from last year reflect poorly on the TSA program. Anyway, “we don’t arrest people,” she told AlterNet. “If we find something that we are concerned about, we will call over local law enforcement. They’re the ones who do the arresting.”

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