Personality profiling: more annoying than effective (OPINION)

COLLEGIAN: September 13, 2011

TSA’s newest security measures try to use body language to catch terrorists

By Jamie Douglas

If it weren’t bad enough that airport security probes into your personal space, they might soon be delving into your thoughts as well. A new type of screening, referred to as “behavior detection procedures,” is already in effect at Logan International Airport in the Boston area. The program was implemented in August as a trial, in hopes of expanding the program to other airports.

According to The Boston Globe, officials will be asking simple questions such as “Where are you traveling to today?” and “How long have you been in town?” as you travel through the other active security measures. I would immediately feel the need to respond with, “Why is it any of your business?” However, it seems that it is not the content of your response, but how you give it that will be noted. This includes your body language, tone, and even microexpressions.

Now I’m not sure about everyone, but airports for me are extremely stressful places. I don’t feel like chatting with anyone while I’m in line for security, separating my possessions, taking off my shoes, and double-checking if I have any lotion left in my purse. I’m already being scanned by x-ray and body scanning machines, which are invasive as it is, and a quick “chat-down” with a TSA officer is the last thing I want to do when I am ten minutes late to board my plane.

This off-putting new program has potential to be abused. I’m sure I’m not the first to think it could be used as an excuse to profile those they already have their eye on. Not to mention the further questions they ask if deemed necessary may offend people. The whole point is to look for involuntary physical and physiological indicators of stress, fear, or deception; though with the high number of people who are afraid to fly, their reactions may be interpreted in the wrong way.

The Behavior Detection Officer program that is fueling the new “chat-down” operation is part of a nearly $1 billion national program called the Screening Passengers by Observation Technique (SPOT) program. Paul Ekman, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of California San Francisco, designed the program. Using his methods, the “hit rate” for finding drugs on passengers went up significantly. However, while Dr. Ekman may be qualified to make these distinctions, will every TSA agent from now on be educated to the same level? What amount of education will they need to deem who is and isn’t taken aside for further questioning?

So there’s proof that we can catch drugs with this “No Lie Zone,” but how about real terrorists? TSA needs to come up with a better excuse for bothering us all and over-analyzing every facial expression. Although this program worked in Israel, with the recent dynamic added to airports by the tragedy on 9/11, there is an entirely different sensitivity to be tended to in the United States.

The program hasn’t caught terrorists as of yet, but is that really the reason the “chat-downs” have been started in the first place? I think it is a rather invasive way for TSA to apprehend those with drugs, those with immigration issues, and other minor problems that could have been dealt with in another venue. Given that this will be impacting travelers’ time frames, schedules and itineraries, it might not be the right time and place to conduct interviews.

With results still pending from the trial, we have no indication that this program is successful.

“Passenger safety continues to be our mission as we use flexible measures in our approach to random screening,” said the TSA in a press release. “Your safety is our priority.” So if you aren’t feeling well, traveling under unfavorable conditions, or all around stressed about flying, be sure to relax before proceeding thorough the security gate.

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