Smart Profiling from the DHS

About time:

Here's how it works: Select TSA employees will be trained to identify suspicious individuals who raise red flags by exhibiting unusual or anxious behavior, which can be as simple as changes in mannerisms, excessive sweating on a cool day, or changes in the pitch of a person's voice. Racial or ethnic factors are not a criterion for singling out people, TSA officials say. Those who are identified as suspicious will be examined more thoroughly; for some, the agency will bring in local police to conduct face-to-face interviews and perhaps run the person's name against national criminal databases and determine whether any threat exists. If such inquiries turn up other issues countries with terrorist connections, police officers can pursue the questioning or alert Federal counterterrorism agents. And of course the full retinue of baggage x-rays, magnetometers and other checks for weapons will continue.

Posted on May 23, 2006 at 6:20 AM • 54 Comments

Comments

DavidMay 23, 2006 7:12 AM

Couldn't help but think of the recent shooting of a bi-polar person here in the Miami airport that resulted in his death.

Wonder if they will get training for people who are mentally-ill?? or is it still shoot-first and ask questions later?

aetiusMay 23, 2006 7:13 AM

I like how in one breath they make the new system seem like a good idea, and then at the end criticize the current system for conducting checks on Marines in dress uniforms, like we're supposed to trust a uniform. Baby steps, I guess.

Michael AshMay 23, 2006 7:36 AM

@ aetius:

Trust the uniform, no. But trust the dead body they were escorting, and trust the automatic weapons that soldiers have been forced to pass through the X-ray machines previously. Of course the article doesn't make this distinction very clear, so it's not really helping the problem.

DevanMay 23, 2006 7:50 AM

This is precisely the kind of "profiling" that has been the core of law enforcement since the beginning of time. Good to hear that the TSA is getting the training other agencies must take for granted.

Lou the trollMay 23, 2006 7:52 AM

@David: You've got it all wrong. It is actually: 'Shoot first - it saves you the trouble of having to ask questions.'

Lou the troll

AnonymousMay 23, 2006 8:27 AM

@David
I think this will help, because there won't be the same pressure to shoot at the gate as there is on an aircraft.

dorothyMay 23, 2006 8:30 AM

I saw a terrorist the other day, he really scared me.

Then I called Homeland and all was well.

Thank you DHS!

Qian WangMay 23, 2006 8:32 AM

Bruce,

This article immediately reminded me of your Apr.13 post on the escaped prisoner social engineering the policeman. This smart profiling is a better program than what the TSA has now, but I wonder how long it will be before behaviorial training is added to (if it isn't already a part of) the standard terrorist training curriculum? What's your take on how the TSA should then respond?

HalMay 23, 2006 9:03 AM

I see this going badly. TSA is a very low level security group that wants to be police. They aren't. Now they can grab anyone and say "he looked odd." These people in general do not have the professionalism nor are they likely to get the training needed to do this kind of profiling correctly. I find the Idea of doing a federal/international background check on someone based on the "gut feeling" of an underpaided mistreated security guard unsettling.

Charles MartinMay 23, 2006 9:18 AM

So, basically, anyone acting nervous is considered suspicious. Forget the fact that there are people existing now that have a fear of flying. Or those who are leaving their family for the first time for that new job away from home. Or the fiance going to meet some of the in-laws for the first time.

Just let them feel much better by submitting them to interrogation before they even get on the plane. Well, at least for some, everything else they're anticipating will seem easy as pie compared to that experience.

JarrodMay 23, 2006 9:50 AM

People acting nervous will probably be asked some simple questions designed to seek out evasiveness. They'll be asked where they're going, how long they'll be staying, why they're going, who they're going to see, things like that. If they've been there before, they may be asked about things that may or may not exist. ("You're going back to Minneapolis? Have you been to the Westchester Cheese Factory?") These are simple techniques designed to trip up those being deceptive while not triggering those who are just afraid of flying, as the latter will latch onto what they know because it's familiar, and are less likely to severely trip up on details.

It's not designed to catch everyone with ill intentions. There are stone-cold murderers who can waltz right through expert police interrogation. A solution doesn't have to work perfectly 100% of the time to improve the effectiveness of the system. People are sometimes detained wrongfully due to suspicion based on an understandable, though incorrect, interpretation of the facts. My brother was once arrested for possession of methamphetamine because he happened to be in a room where some of the drug was found inside a small container when the police showed up, and no one in the room would admit to ownership. It turned out to belong to someone else who was also in the room, and who cleared him several hours later. Really annoying, and a security failure, but based on a reasonable interpretation of events.

paulMay 23, 2006 9:52 AM

If this kind of training were done right, it might work. But as long as different ethnic and cultural groups have different speech patterns (especially in non-native languages), different ideas of personal space and eye contact, different notions of how one responds to people in authority and so forth, my guess is it could be even more of a clown show than the present one.

JTMay 23, 2006 10:35 AM

I don't like to travel, especially by airplane. So I tend to be nervous or anxious when traveling by plane. And knowing that a TSA official may be looking for my nervousness will make me even more nervous. So how does this qualify as an effective measure against terrorism?

Do terrorists get nervous before a terrorist act? Perhaps they calmly resign themselves to their fate.

Looking for a changed voice pitch is not possible if you do not have a baseline for a normal voice pitch for that person. How can you look for a change in mannerism if you do not have a baseline of what is normal mannerisms for that person? If the point of comparison is the mannerisms that the average person would show, then you are not singling out terrorist, but anyone who differs from the average or the norm.

What kind of training will these TSA officials be given? Will they receive even the same number of hours of training as one college course in psychology?

They can't even train screeners to recognize bomb components in x-ray scans, and you expect them to train TSA officers to detect sublte behavioral indicators?

But even an experienced psychologist with a Ph.D. would find it impossible to implement this plan: to discern potential terrorists by their behavior. There are no studies as to how the behavior of terrorists, who are about to commit a terrorist act, differs from the wide range of normal behaviors in other persons. All of these supposed indicators that one is a terrorist are based on untested and unsupportable assumptions.

Who decides what is and is not an indicator for being a terrorist?

Basically, if you show suspicious behavior, you are considered a possible terrorist and are treated as such. It is very easy for someone to claim that you are acting suspiciously; there is no objective criteria. And once you are labeled as suspicious, you cannot possibly prove you are non-suspicious. At what point does such a person who is singled out as suspicious become non-suspicous?

Will a list of persons singled out as suspicious be kept and shared among various agencies? How does one get off that list?

This is one of the worst anti-terrorist ideas that I have ever heard. I'm suprised that Bruce would support such an ill-conceived and unworkable plan.

Bruce, I think you should reconsider your support for this idea.

mdfMay 23, 2006 11:05 AM

No, a solution doesn't have to be 100% effective: it just has to _prove_ it is better than picking people at random. Is there any evidence to this? 50 arrests for "fake id" and "drugs"? Even if these were examples taken from some double-blind examination of the program, one can immediately wonder why the TSA gives a damn about this: isn't the whole point of the TSA to secure airplanes?

And if the program is, as Jarrod avers, "nervous people" being asked "simple questions", then why not just ask _everyone_ these "simple questions" and thus remove all traces of bias implicit in the subjective determinations of who is or is not "nervous"? Of course, the answer to that is: it's none of the governments business why person X is travelling to Truth or Consequences ... they just need to know whether or not said person is carrying a weapon (or precursors) onto the plane. It must be just one of those incredible coincidences of the universe that feeding a name into a database, making random guesses about intent, etc, will do absolutely _nothing_ to advance such an end.

But even if all the forgoing can be addressed satisfactorily, the final problem remains: there is _NOTHING_ in any of this "SPOT" program or its ilk that make the implementors accountable for their actions. By this I mean: if any of these people make a mistake, it's no skin off their nose. If I am "nervous" at a terminal and "fail" their little pseudo-lie-detector test and as a result I am held for many hours, it's safe to say that the TSA and the rest of it has "gamed the system" such that I am basically out of luck. Marched out of the office, you are given a "solemn" apology, and if you complain, a stern lecture on the security realities of the present -- and their apologists will nod in agreement. Essentially there is no incentive on the TSA's part to suffer the consequences of their inepitude. I would propose that every mistake they make should cost the agent (personally) $1k, and the TSA $9k, but expect that even $0.01 would be rejected as unrealistic. Bend over, slave!

QED: bored bureaucrats performing an intractable job are trying to convert the problem into a vaguely tractable one, failing to realize (or simply deliberately ignoring the obvious) that a solution of the new problem can't be transformed into a solution for the original. Mission creep to the N-th power.

Arturo QuirantesMay 23, 2006 11:08 AM

If the TSA employee is good trained, behaviour assessment would be a step forward. However, in a real world with real low-paid, badly-trained people, wouldn't it become another "driving-while-black"? Now we will have FWN: Flying While Nervous. Or maybe Flying While Lookind Funny (FWLF), Flying While Wearing Snickers (FWWS), Flying While Having a Cold on a Winter Day (FWHCWD) ...

Welcome to the new world of Flying-While profiling!

Davi OttenheimerMay 23, 2006 11:27 AM

@ Devan

Good point. I don't know if you've heard, but even the current air marshals complain that sufficient prior/relevant experience is not enough of the equation:

http://pogoblog.typepad.com/pogo/2006/01/...

"According to one Las Vegas-based air marshal, 'At this point TSA/FAMS is just looking for as many warm bodies as they can find to hurriedly fill in the hemorrhaging losses we are currently experiencing...The only FAMs that are going to be left are former screeners and admin personnel... with guns on planes...and zero former law enforcement experience.'"

That doesn't sound good. Usually the less training the less you can predict and (quality) control the outcome of an enforcement group. Wonder if they have to rush the background checks now, or if screeners are grandfathered. When the marshals program started I remember a requirement for only 32 training weeks (16 of close combat). Wonder if that's still the case, even for screeners, and whether profiling training takes up just one hour, one day or one week, etc. of the total time?

ZwackMay 23, 2006 11:44 AM

"excessive sweating on a cool day,"

Define "cool day"... I know people who think that 85F is not too hot. My self, I'm more comfortable at 65F or below. In fact once I'm awake I like 45F-55F to feel most comfortable. Depending on where you are 65F could be considered a "cool" day.

Z.

AGMay 23, 2006 12:08 PM

Great so next time I'm in line and I have to pee I am going to get strip searched?

ErikMay 23, 2006 12:22 PM

This is what they do in Israel. My wife and I went to Jerusalem and Egypt for out honeymoon and both of the times we flew on El Al we were interogated for about ten minutes about our travel plans, where we had already been, anything to keep us talking. It was one of the few security procedures that seemed effective (and El Al's clean record of terrorist attacks may support this).

Interestingly, this extremely personal touch worked both ways. Due to a mistake on my part, we were very late for our departing flight. As soon as we got there, we were assigned a personal escort to rush us through security (we went through all the usual procedures, but were bumped to the front of the lines) and walk us directly to the gate.

Sweaty PalmsMay 23, 2006 12:24 PM

Jarrod said:
"They'll be asked where they're going, how long they'll be staying, why they're going, who they're going to see, things like that."

These things are not the goverment's business without stronger suspicion than sweaty palms.

Have you ever been questioned by customs and immigration people when returning to the US? There are a number of these people who overidentify with the authority of their position.
It can be a Gestapo-like experience, and I don't want more of that for domestic flights.

Worse, it seems to me that this would not have helped in the 9/11 case. We've all seen the video of hijackers breezing through security at Logan. They were rigorously prepared, and would have had cover stories if necessary.

Secure cockpit doors, improved weapons screening, improved intelligence efforts are reasonable. But without a specific threat, routine interrogation is unreasonable.

Jonathan ThornburgMay 23, 2006 12:30 PM

As many others have observed, this is no different than what police do all the time...
*except* that if a police officer stops me for
"suspicious behavior", in most civilized countries I have a fairly good set of legal rights (eg things like Miranda rights in the US).

Alas, it seems many of these legal "rights"
vanish when entering a US airport. Notably, the "right" to remain silent
may not amount to very much... :(
(There's an interesting 1st-person story at
http://arstechnica.com/news.ars/post/...
)

And just to make matters worse... I'm comfortable at 60-65F and *hot* at typical
public-building temperatures, so (quite
apart from running to make a tight connection, and often hauling heavy
carry-ons) I'm often sweating a bit at the
airport.

I think my most prudent course is to not
enter US territory (I live in Europe and
sometimes fly to Canada).

Pat CahalanMay 23, 2006 12:39 PM

People are focusing too much on individual indicator(s). The main point, I think, is that screeners will be receiving training.

Sure, "excessive sweating" doesn't necessarily mean that you're a terrorist. That's sort of the point -> rather than letting untrained screeners "guess" as to what is suspicious behavior, they will be trained in the human behavior analysis.

Right now, if you're sweating for no apparent reason an untrained screener might think you look suspicious. The same screener, with proper training, will know to look for other behaviors. Does the person glance around furtively? Take notice of the security cameras? Stammer? Appear otherwise totally calm? Seem distracted? Move abnormally through the crowd of people?

Profiling human behavior isn't easy (if it was, there would be a lot more good poker players). Knowing how the combinations of "suspect" behaviors interact is a subtle skill.

ProbitasMay 23, 2006 12:42 PM

A reading of the comments above shows many people complaining about poorly trained TSA employees, and in the same breath complaining that they are slated to recieve training. The current system is a rigid flowchart which TSA employees must follow with everybody. The proposed system permits focusing efforts on areas most likely to produce the desired result-a plane which is safer for all of it's occupants. I hate to sound like an apologist for TSA or administration policies (I most certainly am not), but one does need to look at the possibiliy that this might be an improvement over the current system. Incremental progress is certainly more desirable than no progress.

royMay 23, 2006 1:22 PM

The idea that the screening doesn't have to work perfectly in order to work well is faulty when the phenomenon to be detected is vanishingly rare.

Assume that the next fifty million passengers to be screened contain zero terrorists. (The nasty buggers stick to ships, ferries, buses, trains, and taxis, if they ever come here at all.)

If the system worked perfectly, not a single passenger would be harrassed. If instead it 'works imperfectly', then how many passengers will be needlessly harrassed -- 1 million? 5 million? 10 million? To what good? None whatsoever. The screening never catches a terrorist. All of the catches are failures, not successes.

The extreme rarity of the target sought makes indiscriminate screening, or even discriminate screening, a waste of resources. A dowsing rod would work as well as behavioral profiling.

Leaving it to the screener's 'instincts' just gives them license to harrass people they want to harrass, knowing they can get away with it scot free.

In the past, when it was left to screeners to search luggage randomly, they preferred women's undies and anything celebrities have.

Who will be most singled out for harrassment? Good looking women and foreigners whose English is either much worse or much better than that of the screeners. Also, anyone angry at being made to wait for no good reason will practically be guaranteed to be singled out for extra-special treatment, almost all of which will be being made to wait, possibly until the flight has finished boarding and the doors close.

This approach would, however, be suited, to a not-uncommon problem like smuggling ripe fruit or endangered wildlife.

Alex SMay 23, 2006 1:28 PM

Great! So, people with paranoia and anxiety disorders can feel a LOT better now, knowing that they really out to get them! Where's the ACLU in defense of the stressed an anxious? This kind of profiling is wrong and singling out people who simply get nervous around security personnel. Note: This post is filled with sarcasm.

San Francisco flyerMay 23, 2006 1:33 PM

I have observed TSA personnel exhibit a great deal of unnecessary attitude. I don't have the freedom to say "Go F-- Yourself," as I would to nearly anyone else with such an attitude, nor do I have the choice to vote with my feet and use other means of travel. There's also no point to complaining. The argument that "we must stop the terrorists" is unassailable, even if the terrorist population is rather scant of late. (By arguing, one risks being reclassified as a terrorist . . .)

This new policy is a license to profile and to harass. Fortunately, I'm not embarrassed to have sex toys waved around by a TSA screener at a checkpoint (which has happened twice).

I have a clean criminal record and can out-bore any government bureaucrat. I'm not sure everyone can agree with me on this. It's just one more chunk of rights sacrificed on the altar of "counter-terrorism."

WaitAMinuteMay 23, 2006 1:36 PM

I am all for better training, however, it is not clear what actual problem is being solved by this new program.

Do the TSA folks need more training because they are currently letting too many terrorists onto planes? What is the metric they are going against? How will they know if they are successfull?

The stats they provide are NOT that encouraging:

"According to Naccara, the SPOT program has resulted in the arrest of more than 50 people for having fake IDs, entering the country illegally or drug possession."

Wait a minute. Are they looking for terrorists or criminals? So, for these 50 people to have been caught and arrested, the TSA would have used SPOT to originally single them all out as being suspected terrorists! However, in the end, they weren't really terrorists, just common criminals. So by the "how many terrorists" metric, the SPOT program is a complete failure (Terrorists - 0, Criminals - 50).

The SPOT program isn't finding terrorists, its finding criminals. Do we need to be spending all these DHS $billions to catch common criminals? Let the police do that.


Another little "gem" from the article"

"It also has caught one of its own: several months ago a representative from the Department of Homeland Security tested the system by trying to get a fake weapon through the screening checkpoint; he was successfully stopped by a STOP screener. "

Yikes, do the TSA screeners need SPOT for this? I would certainly hope that the current screening process would be able to find weapons, isn't that the whole point of the current system?

Sweaty PalmsMay 23, 2006 2:06 PM

@Pat Calahan

You said: "People are focusing too much on individual indicator(s). The main point, I think, is that screeners will be receiving training."

That sounds reasonable, maybe in fact it will be better than the "random" screening we have now.

But I weigh it against two factors that are important to me:
1) How much does selective interrogation improve my safety? (Or, putting it in specific terms: how much would it help to prevent a 9/11 type attack?)
2) How much does selective interrogation erode of my sense of liberty?

To paraphrase, you are adding:
3) How much does it improve over the random screening bullsh*t we have now?

Fair enough, but for my tax money, I still think it's too short on safety improvement and too long on Gestapo.

spMay 23, 2006 2:18 PM

Oh joy.

I'm habitually cold and I tend to keep my leather jacket close by me. I have allergies that can make my eyes run at odd moments. I'm usually in a hurry, stressed and grumpy when I'm in an airport. I wear enough silver (concho belt, bracelets, maybe a necklace) that it's a pain going through security as it is.

Maybe I'll start driving. It sounds easier.

HoldOnTharMay 23, 2006 2:36 PM

Also regarding the TSA "catching" one of their own - how exactly was this done? What profile is matched by a good guy who is testing the system? Was he or she pretending to act nervous? Doesn't make sense to me.

dhasenanMay 23, 2006 3:27 PM

"Does the person glance around furtively? Take notice of the security cameras? Stammer? Appear otherwise totally calm? Seem distracted? Move abnormally through the crowd of people?"

That sounds like me--though I have yet to blow anything up. Well, aside from balloons.

Pat CahalanMay 23, 2006 4:04 PM

@ Sweaty Palms

> 1) How much does selective interrogation improve my safety? (Or, putting it in
> specific terms: how much would it help to prevent a 9/11 type attack?)

I think that's a little too specific. Back up one step. Why perform any screening on airline boarding at all? What are you defending?

The logic goes something like this: an airplane fails pretty much only in a catastrophic manner. There are three causes of failure -> environmental - e.g., weather (only predictable, not controllable), mechanical failure - e.g. engine failure (predictable and controllable), and human agency either intentional - e.g. terrorist event - or unintentional - e.g. drunk pilot or lazy mechanic (which are mostly unpredictable but controllable).

When defending against failure, if you cannot predict (and avoid) a failure-causing mechanism, it is common sense to take steps to control it (if it is controllable).

Now look at the passengers in particular. What does screening the passengers accomplish? You're going to accomplish two things -> you're creating a barrier to entry for directed malicious activity (hijackers or terrorists have to get equipment past the screening process) and you're creating a buffer against unplanned malicious activity (if random passenger, who suffers from stress which is amplified by the crying baby next to him freaks out, he won't be coincidentally packing the gun which he normally carries, etc.)

> 2) How much does selective interrogation erode of my sense of liberty?

That's one of the costs. To screen passengers provides the two benefits above (makes it more difficult for malicious preplanned activity to occur and makes spontaneous malicious activity less effective). The cost is that the passenger loses some measure of privacy and liberty.

However, the "some measure" is difficult to evaluate. As "San Francisco flyer" pointed out, having someone rifle through your carryon bags can be invasive. Well, you certainly don't have to pack your sex toys in your carryon. You can transport a firearm on a plane, you simply have to follow protocol and check the bag. The screeners can be bad at their jobs and be impolite. This can happen anywhere, at any time, with various authority figures (police, armed guards, unarmed guards, doormen, TSA employees, etc.) and is always annoying, but does it significantly impact your liberties?

> 3) How much does it improve over the random screening bullsh*t we have now?

For one thing, people that are well trained and good at their jobs are much less likely to be the type to be annoying...

Sweaty PalmsMay 23, 2006 5:10 PM

@Pat Cahalan

>When defending against failure, if you cannot predict (and avoid) a failure-causing mechanism, it is common sense to take steps to control it (if it is controllable).

We agree to a point. It is common sense to take the measures to improve safety that justify the costs.

Securing cockpit doors is job one, securing nail-clippers has a somewhat lower payoff.

We x-ray baggage and metal-detect each passenger. These are a big win in safety-to-cost ratio. But does selective interrogation even have a significant safety win?

>The cost is that the passenger loses some measure of privacy and liberty. [...] However, the "some measure" is difficult to evaluate.

Yes, the costs of the TSA employees and their training are quantifiable, but the cost in terms of perceived loss of liberty is very subjective. And that's exactly why I feel it necessary to speak up for my subjective self, in order to say that FOR ME passing a gauntlet of interrogation is too high a price to pay.

I may not be in the majority, but a system that doesn't work for me won't work for many others either.

>For one thing, people that are well trained and good at their jobs are much less likely to be the type to be annoying...

Yes, implementation can make a big difference. But I give you the example of the customs people again. What's to hope TSA will do so much better?

Mark J.May 23, 2006 8:44 PM

Never understood the sweating bit. I've been in situations where I was nervous as hell or scared to death. I wasn't sweating unless it was hot.

I tend to yawn a lot when nervous, though. Weird, no?

MikeMay 23, 2006 9:50 PM

There seems to be a lot of people here missing a rather large point. This has worked in the past and prevented a terrorist attack - this kind of training was what caught Ahmed Ressam at the Canada-US border in Washington state in 1999.

Essentially, selected TSA personell (the smart ones, not the "take off your shoes!" idiots) will be trained to look for "hinkey" just like the cops and other law enforcement are. All of those things - strange sweating, nervous twitches, stammers - are part of it. But trained observers are good at differentiating between people with legitimate nevousness - fear of flying - and not so legit reasons.

The beauty of this is that it works for ANY illegal behavour, not just terrorism (a word which is getting terribly hackneyed these days). This kind of training and profiling can catch drug smuglers, human smugglers, securities smugglers, terrorists, kidnappers etc. Ahmed Ressam was caught because the US Customs agent thought he was acting "hinkey" - she thought he was smuggling a trunk full of BC hydroponic, not bombs.

Its a good general security measure that is threat-agnostic. The best kind.

And yes, if you have seen the video from Logan Airport, this technique would have prevented 9/11 because the behaviour of the hijackers was pretty obvious to someone trained like this (even one of the ticket agents thought so but lacked the authority to do anything).

One last thing:

"how long it will be before behaviorial training is added to (if it isn't already a part of) the standard terrorist training curriculum?"

Don't buy into the myth - there is no such thing as "standard terrorist cirriculum". There is no "Al Queda training manual". These guys don't go to "Terrorist U". They use whatever methods that are available, learned largely from criminals (forged identities, fraud, smuggling, etc) or military (bombs, hand to hand, etc). A member of the IRA would recieve different training than ETA and diferent again from Black September. And a poor Afghan farmer that throws a molotov cocktail at an APC is a terrorist that gets no training at all.

RogerMay 24, 2006 12:13 AM

@WaitAMinute:

> Do the TSA folks need more training because they are currently letting too many terrorists onto planes?

It is hoped that this program will enable them to be less obtrusive while being at least equally effective. Some people are correct in pointing out that there isn't really any way to assess if it really is equally or more effective; too bad, sometimes you get that in security. (The bad guys just refuse to sign up for those double blind studies!) So, sometimes you have no choice but to resort to nonscientific evidence. In this case, the evidence is that this is (more or less) what El Al screeners have been doing for decades, and it seems to work extremely well.

> Wait a minute. Are they looking for terrorists or criminals?

This is the same question you (or someone with the same handle) asked back in this thread:
http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2006/04/...
The answer is still the same: they are looking for BOTH, which is both their legal duty and the smarter way to do it.

> Do we need to be spending all these DHS $billions to catch common criminals?

The DHS isn't spending "$billions" on security, unless you add up the expenditure across years and multiple forms of transport. It is actually just about $1 billion per annum for *all* DHS national security programs, combined. Sounds like a real lot if you had it in your pocket, but for a nation of 300 million people, it is literally less than what you spend on complimentary salted nuts. The airline security component of this budget is less than $2 per passenger flight. In other words, one reason US airline security is so crappy because you are paying peanuts, not billions. And there's the rub: the article says that "Select TSA employees will be trained to...". In other words, they've finally dribbled a little training budget out to them, but it still isn't enough to train everyone.

> Let the police do that.

Absolutely not. Number 1, they don't have jurisdiction, and even if you think that is a bad thing, within the US legal system there is no easy way to change that because most flights cross state lines. Number 2, police powers are considerable, and you don't go handing them out willy nilly; airline passenger screeners do not require such broad powers and should not have them.

> Yikes, do the TSA screeners need SPOT for this? I would certainly hope that the current screening process would be able to find weapons

I think the point was that the SPOT screener detected the test agent by behavioural observation, not with physical sensors. Thus the weapon had nothing to do with it, other than explaining the agent's "hinkiness". In other words, even though the DHS agent was not a real criminal and had no reason to be sweating blood, the SPOT trained person was still able to successfully analyse his behaviour and determine that he was "up to something". That's actually a moderately impressive result, although you can't make too much of it without knowing the actual FAR and FRR for test agents. (And in any case, the FRR for test agents is likely to be different to that for real criminals; although one would expect the rate for criminals to be better than that for test agents.)

John GilmoreMay 24, 2006 2:02 AM

Bruce, I think your approval of this technique is misplaced. It might work OK where people have no civil liberties. But if both evildoers and citizens have a right to refuse interrogation, how does it work?

What do they do about people who follow their lawyer's advice (EVERY lawyer's advice) and decline to answer questions from a screener or cop without their lawyer present? Is that person suspicious? Or do they get whisked right through?

Exercising your constitutional rights is not supposed to make you automatically suspicious. It usually does make the cops suspicious, but there's nothing they can do about it because you're not consenting, you're not incriminating yourself, and they have to let you go quickly. In the airport, if you don't kiss their asses nicely, the thugs have a practice of routinely "detaining" small numbers of people for hours, and much larger numbers for half an hour or an hour. On the street, a cop can't detain you at all if they have no reasonable suspicion that you committed a crime (i.e. more than a "hunch"). And can only detain you for minutes with a suspicion.

Qian WangMay 24, 2006 9:44 AM

@Mike
> Don't buy into the myth - there is no such thing as "standard terrorist cirriculum".

I agree, Mike, that there isn't a "terrorist U" as such, but we should not assume that our enemies will not adapt their techniques. We saw with the 9/11 terrorists that they received very specific training (flight lessons) for their intended mission. They also exploited established security norms to their advantage. They did not bring guns or knives, which were already actively screened for, but chose the less sensitive but equally effective box cutters instead. They also took advantage of our preconceptions about what goals hijackers have. They did not play by our script nor should we expect that they will in the future.

XellosMay 24, 2006 11:30 AM

Reminds me of one of the stories in Feynman's book, about how he tried to enlist but got declared 4F by the psychologist. For instance, when asked if he ever felt that he was being watched, he replied yes, since there were several guys in line and he knew (from standing in line) there wasn't much else to look at. When asked who was looking at him, he turned around and started pointing, which naturally caused everyone else to look at him...

MikeMay 24, 2006 11:42 AM

Qian Wang -

I whole heartedly agree with what you say, which is why I have no doubt that terrorists (or any criminals for that matter) adapt to scripted security procedures - it becomes an "arms race" so to speak, where each side continually outsmarts the other.

That being said, I do not think this technique falls into that "scripted" category. The kinds of behaviours we are talking about are almost all autonomic nervous system reactions or unconsious reactions which are very hard for people to control. Again, the video of the 9\11 hijackers boarding at Logan and Newark show this - they were nervous, almost panicky at one point, so much so that a ticket agent was concerned (one without training) but had no authority to do anything. Irrelevant or guns and knives or flight training, a trained individual, with the proper authority, would have pulled these guys from the flights - not because they were acting like terrorists, but because they might have been drug smugglers, illegal immagrants or any other number of things that didn't belong on an airplane.

Now, it is entirely possible that some terrorist, so bent on destruction will get training on supressing his autonomic nervous reactions, or take drugs to do so. There really isn't much you can do about that. Then the real money should be spent on other layers in the security system - intelligence to detect a possible threat long before they get to the airport (or any other target), the technique above to catch them at the airport (or any other target, since the technique clearly works at ferry crossings) or in physical security (of cockpit doors, engine compartments or explosive proof baggage bins) so it won't matter.

The only thing the 9\11 guys "recieved" from their mentors was money and vague instructions. It was them that choose how to implement it.

Looking for "hinkey" can help guard against attacks not yet thought of as well, not just guard against the last attack, whihc is what is going on with TSA.

TankMay 24, 2006 11:46 AM

"Couldn't help but think of the recent shooting of a bi-polar person here in the Miami airport that resulted in his death.
Wonder if they will get training for people who are mentally-ill?? or is it still shoot-first and ask questions later?
David at May 23, 2006 07:12 AM"

Ask which question later ?
Was it "In hindsight how do you think your husband skipping his meds before entering an environment secured by armed guards worked out" ?

Or would that question be "Is acting hysterical, claiming you have a bomb and claiming you will set it off at an airport something that will get you shot anywhere anytime ?"

Sales assistants selling hairdryers to the mentally ill who own bathtubs results in far more deaths than this. Do they need training too or do you think there are actually some things that Darwin is going to sort out one way or another ?

Really!May 24, 2006 12:15 PM

Coming soon to a newspaper near you:

"Today, the ACLU filed a suit to block the illegal profiling of (fill in the name of your pet victim group) by the TSA"

LCMay 24, 2006 1:16 PM

Millions of persons fly in the U.S. each year. What percentage are intent on committing a terrorist act? Perhaps less than one in a million.

It is not possible to distinguish one person from one million others by sublte behavioral indicators, when those behaviors are more prevalent in the one million than in the few who are terrorists.

The number of false positives would be very high. The amount of resources used to scrutinize persons, 99.9999 percent of whom will be non-terrorists, will be excessive. The odds of a false negative, i.e. that a terrorist might not be caught by this method, is also high.

Not a good use of limited resources.

qyvMay 24, 2006 2:14 PM

There seem to be two questions here: 1) given that the TSA already has the right to detain you and/or not allow you through the checkpoint pretty much arbitrarily, should they be better trained to recognize possible ill intent? I would say yes. 2) Should they have the right to detain you, etc., without following the same rules as normal law enforcement personnel? I'd say No.

There ought to be a happy medium: The TSA gets trained in these techniques, but the normal standards of police conduct apply. That is, with reasonable suspicion (perhaps if the person is exhibiting several of these behaviors), the TSAgent can pull them aside and ask their name and a few questions. If they can't come up with probable cause, and the person passes the x-ray/metal/bomb detectors, then the person is free to board the plane. This would clear those people who are just nervous, retain strong civil rights, and still have a higher chance of identifying terrorists than random searches or watch lists.

WaitAMinuteMay 24, 2006 4:18 PM

@ Roger

"they are looking for BOTH, which is both their legal duty and the smarter way to do it."

I don't necessarily disagee. However, if the TSA has a "legal duty" to look for criminals, then they need to be *real* law enforcement officers, with all the same training that law enforcment personnel recieve.


"Absolutely not. Number 1, they don't have jurisdiction, and even if you think that is a bad thing, within the US legal system there is no easy way to change that because most flights cross state lines. Number 2, police powers are considerable, and you don't go handing them out willy nilly; airline passenger screeners do not require such broad powers and should not have them. "

In the case of cross state jurisdiction, fine, substitute "FBI" for "police" in my comments. Regarding police powers, TSA currently have MORE powers than police. The TSA can detain people without probable cause and can interrogate them without providing basic rights like miranda. Plus, those that have been unduly, or unjustly delayed, detained and/or interrogated have no recourse for due process under law. See the other thread that discusses the TSA "constitution free zone": http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2006/05/...

If we want the TSA to screen for persons beyond those that would be an immediate threat to the travel environment at hand (i.e. a terrorist getting on an airplane) and to have TSA screeners also looking for criminals and criminal behaviour, then the TSA screeners need to be trained police officers and those being "screened" for criminal behaviour need to have the same legal rights and due process as someone being pulled over in their automobile for an alleged moving traffic violation.

averrosMay 24, 2006 6:43 PM

> selected TSA personell (the smart ones...

Given what they're paid, I'd think there's well justified suspiction that a smart TSA employee is an oxymoron.

God, please save us from the amateur psychologists on a power trip.

Why not simply make airlines fully liable for the losses in case of terrorist acts *and* let them (and their insurers!) make their own decisions about security arrangements? The basic economics teaches us that this will be cheaper, more effective AND user-friendly.

TSA is a very bad idea no matter how you slice it. It has no incentives whatsoever to be reasonable, inexpensive or friendly - but it is the ideal breeding ground for assholes whose idea of a good life is being paid for groping, insulting and harassing people who are way better and above them.

GinoMay 26, 2006 5:37 AM

Aren't the British still looking for the right man to shoot five times in the head?

staceyAugust 15, 2006 9:42 AM

i just started reading about this SPOT thing, its making sense as to my own experience a few years ago when i was stopped-coming back from england,which was a leisure trip-nothing more nothing less.a canadian friend of mine had paid for it for me-i was unemployed-and pregnant.that was the reason they(customs) gave for stopping me, the ordeal lasted 20hours-i was patted down, questioned repeatedly, asked about my pregnancy.i was escorted to a nearby hospital-they wouldnt let me leave until i had 2 bowel movements.its like they couldnt make up their minds-either i was trying to sell my unborn baby,or i was transporting drugs-in me.they even threatened to scope me-a kind doctor stepped in on my behalf.and i was eventually let go-after the second bm.that was a horrible experience,i asked them to call my friend who would verify everything, they wouldnt because she wasnt a relative!im not sure if i had shown any behavior, it might have been sweating-due to the uti i had,eventually crying because i had no idea what was happening or why, and maybe it was the anger because those were some serious accusations.im hoping to fly back to england next year-depending on security issues,with my 3 year old son,and i am gainfully employed.my point is,i was and still am innocent, all those resources were wasted on trying to find something on me-there must have been at least a half dozen security personel with me, all that overtime etc.im still very angry over it.i am going to be nervous the next time i fly.i wonder how many more people does this unnecessary interogation happen to? i totally respect the idea of heighten security, but it needs to be focused a bit better on the terrorists.given the choice of drug smugglers verses a plane blowing up-well the choice is obvious isnt it?

Ami in D-landAugust 15, 2006 8:32 PM

Everyone seems to think it's unreasonable to expect professionalism from people working for a government agency. I live in Germany, where working for the government is a pretty cushy job (great benefits, good pension, etc.). Yes, we have the same complaints about unpleasant service at the driver's license office, but in most cases you can expect a certain level of professionalism from persons in jobs requiring special skills. I don't think this is too much to ask.
I also think that the combination of low expectations of security personnel and a monotonous, boring job inevitably lead to a situation where people quit, abuse their position, or simply fail to perfom required tasks. Wouldn't training a smaller force of well-paid screeners to recognize suspicious behavior/persons and incorporating their observations into our screening profiles make them more motivated to professionalism?

I have traveled extensively and been subjected to security pat downs, immigration interviews and the like on four continents. The United States is unique in the extensive resources it expends on creating huge inconvenience for people it does not even consider to be a threat. We already use behavior profiling for immigration and customs (in addition to random, but not too inconveniently frequent spot checks). A similar system for airport security would be preferable to mandatory strip searches for all passengers.

One last thought- maybe it's time to rethink the huge budget cuts we made to Amtrak.

bobJanuary 4, 2008 9:23 AM

@Gino: Dont think they were EVER looking for the RIGHT one...

@Stacey: sure you're not "archy"? (completely off topic AND showing my age)

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