August 17, 2006

Behavior Screening

Been thinking a lot about this behavior screening they’re talking about doing at airports. I’m curious about the science behind it – definitely behavioral & cognitive science-related!

Today’s Times seems to share my curiosity, as they published Faces, Too, Are Searched at U.S. Airports, complete with a graphic on seeing emotions in faces .

The article describes the Transportation Security Administration’s "behavior detection officers," apparently attempting some techniques adopted at Israelis airports.

Here's what state police officers at Logan tried after September 11:

"The officers observed travelers’ facial expressions, body and eye movements, changes in vocal pitch and other indicators of stress or disorientation. If the officers’ suspicions were aroused, they began a casual conversation with the person, asking questions like 'What did you see in Boston?' followed perhaps by'Oh, you’ve been sightseeing. What did you like best?'

"The questions themselves are not significant, Mr. Robbins said. It is the way the person answers, particularly whether the person shows any sign of trying to conceal the truth."

This has been expanded in the past 9 months to more airports, and of about 50 people turned over to the police for intense screening:

"[H]alf a dozen have faced charges or other law enforcement follow-up … because the behavior detection officials succeeded in picking out people who had a reason to be nervous, generally because of immigration matters, outstanding warrants or forged documents."

There are problems with civil liberties, of course.

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