‘Behavior Detection Officers’ Are Keeping a Close Eye on Travelers

August 20th, 2007 - by admin

Kaitlin Dirrig / McClatchy Newspapers – 2007-08-20 22:42:56


WASHINGTON (August 19, 2007) — Next time you go to the airport, more eyes may be following you than you notice.

Reading your body language. Studying the facial cues of the passenger in front of you. Scanning for signs of bad intentions, the watcher could be the attendant who hands you the tray for your laptop or the one standing behind the ticket checker. Or even curbside with the baggage attendants.

Called behavior detection officers, they are part of recent security upgrades, Transportation Security Administrator Kip Hawley told an aviation industry group in Washington last month, “a wonderful tool to be able to identify and do risk management prior to somebody coming into the airport or approaching the crowded checkpoint.”

The officers are working in more than a dozen airports already, said Paul Ekman, a former professor at the University of California-San Francisco who has advised Hawley’s agency.

Amy Kudwa, a Transportation Security Administration public affairs specialist, said the agency hopes to have 500 behavior detection officers in place by the end of 2008.

Kudwa described the effort, which began as a pilot program in 2006, as “very successful” at identifying suspicious airline passengers. Terrorism suspects have been apprehended, two independent sources said.

At the heart of the new screening system is a theory that when people try to conceal their emotions, they reveal their feelings in flashes that Ekman calls “micro-expressions.” Fear and disgust are the key ones, he said, because they are associated with deception.

Behavior detection officers work in pairs. Typically, one officer sizes up passengers openly while the other seems to be performing a routine security duty. A passenger who arouses suspicion, whether by micro-expressions, social interaction or body language, gets more serious scrutiny.

A behavior specialist may decide to move in to help the suspicious passenger recover belongings that have passed through the baggage X-ray. Or he may ask where the traveler is going. If more alarms go off, officers will “refer” the person to law enforcement officials for further questioning.

The strategy is based on a time-tested and successful Israeli model, but in the United States the scrutiny is much less invasive, Ekman said. American officers receive 56 hours of training.

The use of “micro-expressions” to identify hidden emotions began nearly 30 years ago when Ekman and colleague Maureen O’Sullivan began studying videotapes of people telling lies. When they slowed the videotapes, they noticed distinct facial movements and began to catalog them.

The Department of Homeland Security hopes to dramatically enhance such security practices.

Jay M. Cohen, undersecretary of homeland security for science and technology, said in May that he wants to automate passenger screening by using video cameras and computers to measure and analyze heart rate, respiration, body temperature and verbal responses, as well as facial micro-expressions.

Homeland Security is seeking proposals from scientists to develop such technology. The deadline for submissions is Aug. 31.

It faces hurdles, however.

Different cultures express themselves differently. Expressions and body language are easy to misread, and no one has cataloged them all. Ekman noted that each culture has its own specific body language, but that little has been done to study each individually.

Also, automation won’t be easy, especially for the multiple variables a computer needs to size up people.

Finally, the extensive data-gathering will raise civil-liberties concerns.

“If you discover that someone is at risk for heart disease, what happens to that information?” Ekman asked. “How can we be certain that it’s not sold to third parties?”

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