The Navigator: In the TSA’s new screening program, appearances can be deceiving


(Alla Dreyvitser/ TWP)
Columnist September 9, 2011

A few minutes after Vance Gilbert’s recent flight from Boston to Washington pulled away from the gate, the aircraft made a U-turn and returned to the terminal. Authorities had a few questions for him before they could clear his flight for takeoff. What kind of book was he reading? And why hadn’t he stowed his fanny pack in the overhead bin, as a flight attendant had suggested?

Gilbert, a popular folk musician who lives in Arlington, Mass., has unwittingly become a poster boy for the TSA’s pilot behavior-detection program — a new screening technique that is almost certainly coming soon to an airport near you.

As it turns out, Gilbert had perfectly valid answers to both questions. An amateur aviation historian, he was studying a book about World War II-era Polish aircraft. The fanny pack contained his wallet, so he tucked it underneath the seat in front of him.

But Gilbert believes that he was singled out because he is “a 6-foot-tall, bespectacled, slightly graying, 52-year-old, 230-pound African American male with a close hair cut.” In other words, that he was the target of racial profiling.

He says that he was “totally humiliated” by the experience. “All I want to do is go from one show of mine to another and enjoy studying some history along the way,” he told me. “Is that such a crime?”

Gilbert’s interrogation, which is described in more detail on his blog (www.vancegilbert.com), may or may not have anything to do with the TSA’s new initiative. (He says that he was questioned by two police officers and at least one TSA agent; the TSA says that it wasn’t involved in any way.) But it has focused attention on the program the way nothing else has done.

TSA screeners in Boston are reportedly engaging each passenger in “casual conversation” in an effort to detect suspicious behavior. After passengers provide their boarding pass and ID, they have to answer a few questions from TSA officers. This “enhanced interaction” allows officers to better verify or dispel suspicious behavior and anomalies, according to the agency.

Agents “in no way profile based on race or ethnicity,” says TSA spokesman Greg Soule.

Of course, these so-called “chat downs” will probably invite as much criticism from passengers as the agency’s controversial full-body scans or liquid and gel limits. Why, travelers may wonder, was I singled out for a particular question? Do the TSA agents suspect me because of my previous answer, because of my skin color or because of something else?

For example, Josh Chessman believes that he was profiled for perspiring. “It took me longer to get to the airport than I had anticipated, and I ended up running in the summer heat to get to security,” says the engineer from Boston. “When I got to security, sweating quite a bit, my bags were X-rayed and I was then selected for special screening. They searched my bag somewhat thoroughly, and I had a whole bunch of new friends asking me questions like ‘Where are you going?’, ‘Where are you from?’ and ‘Where are you coming from?’ ”

Lisa Schaefer, a research scientist from Vienna, Va., thinks that she was singled out because she was “white, female, educated, confident — and in a hurry.” Instead of asking her questions, TSA agents in St. Louis removed her bag from the X-ray machine and claimed that it had to go through again. Then they waited. Finally, another TSA agent re-screened her suitcase, even though it was obvious that she was close to missing her flight. “It was the only power they had over [me],” she says.

Experts say that behavior profiling, when done correctly, can make flying safer. “If TSA employees are trained and demonstrate that they are aware of how to engage people and then do a good job of engaging travelers in conversation, then travelers should appreciate the new approach,” says Rick Shaw, a Washington-based security expert. “However, if TSA employees attempt the behavior detection and engagement with a poor attitude, or act like they are just there to get a paycheck, or act like they are annoyed by travelers — attitudes I have observed quite often — then travelers won’t be impressed. They won’t see the value or feel any safer.”

But will they be any safer? The predecessor to TSA’s new behavior detection program in Boston, called SPOT — for “Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques” — hasn’t caught any terrorists yet. “It’s a failed system,” says John Byrnes, founder of the Center for Aggression Management in Altamonte Springs, Fla. “Yet our government continues to use it and continues to try to validate it.”

But Peter DiDomenica, who helped create SPOT while working for the Massachusetts State Police, says that behavior-screening works. A study by the Department of Homeland Security found that it was nine times more effective than random screening at discovering high-risk travelers. In order for it to be effective, however, agents must be properly trained.

“Even if the correct methods are being used, there is the danger of unconscious bias creeping into the process, so that attention is unduly diverted to certain individuals based on racial, ethnic or religious appearance,” he says.

I asked Gilbert whether he thought that his “chat down” was a result of Boston’s new behavior detection program, and he said he didn’t know.

Could the incident have taken place earlier this summer, before the TSA’s pilot program started? Probably. Maybe the fact that it happened after the test started, and that a celebrity with a well-read blog was involved, shone a spotlight on behavior screening.

Just as well. Although the TSA is being coy about the future of “chat downs,” insisting that this is only a test and that the future of behavior detection is far from certain, I think we all know better.

It’s only a matter of time before TSA officers in airports everywhere start asking us questions, gauging our responses to determine whether we deserve a more thorough examination. It’s interesting, and maybe a little sad, that we’re having this discussion 10 years to the day after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Will behavior profiling catch another terrorist? Maybe. Will it draw untold complaints about racial, ethnic and other biases? No question about it.

Elliott is National Geographic Traveler magazine’s reader advocate. E-mail him at chris@elliott.org.

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