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Behaving Like a Terrorist

ANYONE WHO PLANS to board a plane in an Israeli airport can expect to be closely observed by trained security personnel, who may also ask extensive questions, all in an effort to spot terrorists before they strike. The practice is known as behavioral profiling. And it may soon be coming to an airport near you. “We’re now looking at behavioral pattern recognition as a way of increasing the tools that our screeners have,” DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff said in a recent speech.

The procedure involves asking passengers questions—such as the purpose for their visit, their mother’s maiden name, and birthplace—with the objective of detecting inconsistencies that may be a sign that the passenger isn’t who or what he or she claims to be.

Boston Logan International Airport was among the first to use a variation of this method, and several others are testing it.

Some experts question whether the practice, even if it passes legal muster, is effective and worth using in American airports.

“There are so many variables in behavior that it is very difficult not to get an awful lot of false positives,” says Douglas Laird, president of Laird and Associates and former security director for Northwest Airlines. Laird says that behavioral profiling may serve as a deterrent, but the benefits are not substantial enough to merit its use in American airports, many of which process far more passengers than even the busiest Israeli airport.

A better idea is to use risk-based screening methods to narrow the crop of suspicious passengers, says Robert Poole, director of transportation for the Reason Foundation. For example, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Secure Flight program (also controversial) involves the submission of a limited amount of passenger information by an aircraft operator to TSA at the time the reservation is made. The information is then compared to various terrorist watch lists. If the passenger is identified as suspicious, Poole explains, he or she could then be taken off the plane for additional screening.

Other experts say that behavioral profiling is a necessary and fundamental component of any security program.

In fact, behavioral profiling is already used successfully by U.S. Customs agents, who look at facial expressions and for signs of nervousness to identify suspicious activities at U.S. borders, says Samuel McQuade, professor and graduate program coordinator for cross-disciplinary professional studies at Rochester Institute of Technology. Training airport security personnel to recognize and respond to the same suspicious behaviors can only lead to better security.

Airport security officers should also be trained in the particular types of questions to ask and how to spot subtle signs of deception.

“You’re trying to trip the person up in subtle ways, you’re putting together their mannerisms, their answers to the questions, what they say as well as how they say it,” says McQuade, a former police  officer who likens this approach to a beat cop asking a driver questions at a routine traffic stop. “The smallest things can start setting off the trigger.”