“Behavior detection”: still a bad idea

John Pistole, who heads the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), posted an op-ed in USA Today on August 17, 2012 in an attempt to shore up support for and justify the existence of his “behavior detection” program.

The op-ed was laughable in its repetition of increasingly content-free TSA talking points, yet almost desperate because Pistole didn’t have anything new to say, nor any evidence to back up his statements. It’s as if he believes that repeating these statements over and over will somehow make them true.

Let’s look at his opinion piece paragraph by paragraph. Don’t worry, it’s short, so this won’t take long.

Pistole asserts that because there’s no silver bullet for good airport security, the TSA “utilizes a risk-based, intelligence-driven layered approach to security, using everything from passenger information to technology and importantly, behavior-detection techniques.”

Fair enough, but one only has to look at the conduct of TSA agents to wonder what this “risk-based, intelligence-driven layered approach to security” really means. Theft of passenger property, especially iPads and money, is so rampant, one must ask if risk assessments made by TSA agents are about deciding whether or not to steal your stuff. And maybe “intelligence-driven” means TSA agents talking to each other on their phones to decide which passengers would be good marks.

Pistole continues: “Looking for suspicious behavior is simply common sense. Law enforcement does it every day in communities across the country and around the world.”

Also fair — except that in spite of their spiffy police-blue uniforms, TSA screeners are not law enforcement. Even if they were, law enforcement in this country cannot walk up to random people and engage them in conversation in the hope that they say something to incriminate themselves.

Police, in general, have to have probable cause, or at least reasonable suspicion to believe that criminal activity is going on before they can engage people in this way. And with police, if you aren’t under arrest or being detained, you can ask if you are free to go, and if the police say yes, you can walk away.

In addition, “casual conversations” initiated by so-called Behavior Detection Officers (BDOs) are never going to be “casual.” Passengers in airports already tend to be stressed out. Being accosted by a person in uniform and asked questions about one’s travel plans only adds more stress. In that situation, no matter what is said, no matter how supposedly friendly the question, it’s going to feel like an interrogation. And the person is likely going to exhibit “behavioral cues” that might look suspicious to a BDO.

(Let’s leave aside the fact that the BDO program has been repeatedly called into question as unproven and ineffective, and the “theory” on which it is based has been widely discredited.)

Even though the administrative law standards, which apply at airports, use a much looser standard for searches, the sky is not the limit. Law professor Jeffrey Rosen described the legal test for whether body scans and pat downs are constitutional in a well-written opinion piece for the Washington Post back in 2010, and concluded the procedures fail the constitutional test.

Again, Pistole: “In the past month alone, TSA officers trained to pick up on behavioral cues saved a beaten and kidnapped woman from her kidnappers in Miami and came to the rescue of a man having a heart attack in Boston.”

Misdirection! A rhetorical tactic to gain support by changing the subject.

Okay, we should be glad that TSA agents came to the rescue of these two people, but isn’t that just ordinary human decency? The stated reason for behavioral detection is to ferret out terrorists, not to rescue people, or to find low-level criminals. In fact, TSA screeners are legally prohibited from searching for or questioning anyone about anything other than weapons, explosives, and incendiaries. Yet, as we know, they ignore this prohibition all the time.

In the case of the beaten woman, her face was covered with bruises, and she asked for help. Would you claim you had special powers of detection because you could see a woman’s bruised face, or because you noticed someone in extreme distress?

Pistole’s next statement: “Our behavior-detection program is a critical part of our approach to securing travel, but profiling passengers on any basis is simply not tolerated.”

It’s a great talking point, but the reality is that even TSA agents themselves have complained that racial profiling is an on-going problem at the TSA.

Who are the BDOs approaching to engage in “casual conversation”? According to TSA employee allegations, the TSA has targeted “Hispanics and well-dressed African-Americans with expensive jewelry or luggage” – practically the definition of racial profiling.

Pistole: “While deterrence is an important outcome of TSA’s security protocols and initiatives, it is also difficult to measure. But when security measures deter a would-be terrorist from attempting to carry out a planned attack, we have succeeded.”

In other words, “we know we haven’t found any terrorists, but please continue to allow us to violate the constitutional rights of travelers.”

The truth is it’s impossible know if any of security measures put in place after 9/11, aside from reinforcing the cockpit doors, have prevented another terrorist attack. You can’t prove a negative. You may as well say that because you carry a special stone in your pocket to ward off terrorists, and no terrorists have attacked you, therefore the stone works.

Finally, Pistole claims that “the behavior-detection program is an internationally proven way to observe possible threats.”

What he fails to note is that other countries’ behavior-detection experts have spent years in training, which isn’t the case for rank-and-file members of the TSA, who get 4 days in the classroom and 24 hours of on-the-job “training” before they’re unleashed on the public as BDOs.

In the end, Pistole has nothing but his worn-out talking points, none of which show any evidence that this program is worth keeping.

What’s the best outcome for the “behavioral detection” program?

Shut it down.


(Photo: Flickr Creative Commons/ClownBurner)