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TSA Launches Israel-Style Behavior Profiling Program Called 'SPOT'

August 3, 2011 at 3:00 PM | by | Comments (2)

TSA has very slowly been moving toward Israeli-style behavior profiling since at least March, which was when we first covered this story. The news this morning is that the agency has finally launched a one billion dollar pilot program at BOS under the too-cute name "Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques"—SPOT—with the intention perhaps of eventually deploying it elsewhere. It seems to be modeled very closely on how the Israelis do things, which immediately raises the question of how exactly the agency intends to pull all this off.

"Behavior profiling" can actually mean at least two things. In the most basic sense behavior profiling it's just about passively watching people. This is the Las Vegas "eye in the sky" kind of profiling, where body language experts monitor the casino floor and can detect cheaters just by the way they walk around nervously. Setting up this kind of passive program is just a matter of having enough resources to train and employ people, and TSA already has so-called "behavior detection officers" in 161 airports (you can check out our background on that program here). But that's not really what people mean when they say "Israeli-style behavior profiling."

Israeli behavior profiling is active rather than passive, with agents approaching every passenger in line and trying to knock them off-balance with personal questions.

The goal is to check if passengers are who they claim to be, or if they're inventing cover stories. The questions, then, are explicitly designed to be personal. Agents will not only ask questions like "what hotel did you stay at" and "what did you visit," but also "who drove you here" and "who did you have dinner with last night?" An El Al gate agent at JFK once asked us about the last time we had family dinner, and we know someone who got a question about attending religious services. While this is happening agents are flipping through passenger passports, and can ask questions about past trips. They're not actually interested in what someone did last time they were in Italy, of course. They just want to see whether people are stumbling around trying to come up with an answer.

The problem is that Americans—on the whole, averaging across the flying public—will simply go out of their minds if asked those kinds of personal questions. Can you imagine an American passenger responding to a TSA question like "when was the last time you attended church?" There's just no way.

Compared to Americans—and for obvious reasons—Israelis are willing to spend more money on security and to tolerate a more intrusive security system. TSA has to clear both of those hurdles before adopting the Israeli behavior model. They still have the same old resources problem, since it takes a lot of time and money to create the kind of experts who can tell from someone's eye movements whether they're inventing an answer to "who drove you to the airport?" The agency may flat out just not have the money to train enough agents for long enough. Apparently SPOT training requires four days of classroom instruction and then 24 hours of live training. That's unlikely to be enough.

Even if TSA finds the resources, it will still have to thread a very fine needle: implementing Israeli-style security without asking the kind of Israeli-style questions that Americans would find unacceptable.

[Photo: redjar / Flickr]

Comments (2)

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I disagree

I'm an American, and I would much rather answer "when was the last time you attended church?" than to endure the pornoscanner or grope down. I disagree that Americans would find personal questions too intrusive or unacceptable, IF they knew that the system worked. But if it's just yet another annoyance that doesn't really improve safety, THAT's what people find unacceptable. However, as you saw with El Al, the right questions asked the right way don't sound invasive. Also, I bet if you really looked at the dollars spent, throwing out the defective technological approaches we rely on could pay for a LOT of well-trained employees (assuming you know where to recruit and how to provide a work environment that prevents rampant turnover).

With international tensions still running

With international tensions still running high, and the threat of terrorism still not gone, it is not surprising that TSA would want to try a new approach to airport security. To really make the Israeli method of screening passengers work, Americans must first learn to give up some of their freedom and rights, so that safety becomes the top priority. This alone would prove to be the biggest hurdles to overcome.

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