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The Importance of Behavioral Monitoring At Airports

In the face of an attack that was stopped mainly due to incompetence, we have seen security raised yet again for flights coming into the United States.  This may seem like a good move and, if you wish to immediately allay some fears that your government isn’t doing enough to stop bombers from entering a plane, it is.  However, I think most people know that this is a superficial toughening of security at best.

Consider that this time the threat wasn’t from something being carried in a suitcase, but in a man’s underwear.  So, extra pat downs, requiring all carry-ons to be stored overhead, and requiring everyone to sit for the last hour of a flight just don’t make any sense.  They’re probably not going to stop any attacks this way.

So what can be done?

First of all, there are the things that you can do before a person becomes a threat.  Like taking warnings seriously when the father of the terrorist tells you his son is a problem (Take note, Obama administration).  Or, making sure that the people you’ve known about for two years are put on the no-fly list (The Bush administration should have done this).

Still, as good as our intelligence community is, you will not be able to catch everybody beforehand.  Therefore, security at the airports is paramount, but simply toughening the measures already in place will not be enough.  There needs to be a new approach.

Hot Air’s Ed Morrissey thinks he knows what to do.  Rather than focus so much on measures that look for dangerous items, adopt ones that focus on people:

The US should have started emulating El Al after 9/11, whose security screening uses expert analysis and questioning, as well as heightened scrutiny where it belongs.

El Al is an Israeli airline that has taken an innovative approach to airport security.  They use experts in expression recognition to find people who are acting unusually, or are otherwise acting in a way that may deem them a threat.  These people are then taken out for further scrutiny.  Some U.S. airports were using the method a few years ago, but I don’t know what ever became of it.  From the NY Times in 2006 (via Morrissey’s old Captain’s Quarters blog):

After the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, he said, state police officers there wondered whether a technique they had long used to try to identify drug couriers at the airport might also work for terrorists. 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.

The dangerous object detection already done in normal post-9/11 security, combined with more focus on the people moving through the line, would certainly be an improvement.  As we’ve learned since 9/11, it is still dreadfully easy to get banned objects past security.  However, with the addition of teams scanning the behavior of passengers, that ought to help identify potential threats before they get on to the plane.

The system isn’t by any means perfect.  There is the matter of false positives; some people are simply more nervous when flying.  I myself am a bit nervous at airports, not because I’m afraid of flying, but because I don’t want to move my hand the wrong way and get tackled by a dozen TSA agents.  However, I would argue that it is better to have a few innocent-but-still-nervous people go through the extra scrutiny rather than missing an actual terrorist with the current measures that inconvenience everybody but protect nobody.

My other concern is the ability for Al Qaeda to adapt to new measures.  We have already seen them react to the fact that airports and governments are already more sensitive to Arab passengers.  The terrorist in the Christmas Day attack attempt was a black Nigerian, not an Arab.  Is it possible for them to train operatives to act like a normal passenger?  To not express fear of what they are about to do?  Certainly fear must be one of many emotions running through an operative’s mind and body as they get ready to attack.  Can Al Qaeda train future operatives to be relaxed prior to an attack?

Maybe, and I fear that these new type of security personnel, if such a program were to be implemented, could become too comfortable in searching for certain patterns, and miss new ones as they develop.  The TSA would need to work with intelligence officials to keep apprised of changing training methods by AQ.  They should already be doing this, anyway.  That said, you can’t exactly train your security to focus on anybody who is acting normal, or everybody will be taken aside for more thorough searches.

I am not sure that behavioral monitoring is a method that could work forever, but I also think that its implementation is necessary for airport security, at least as it currently stands.  The program will need to be reconsidered for relevance as the years go on, and as terrorists change their own methods of operation.  But for now, I do believe it is the way to go.

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  1. Mike

    December 28th, 2009 at 06:27

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    I wonder how much more air travel would cost if we had to hire experts to analyze every passengers facial expressions and vocal pitches, not to mention the amount of time that would take. I assume you must have in mind some computer system that can feed such analysts with likely candidates, but even that sounds very expensive. It would not be feasible to ask airlines and passengers to come up with that money since I hear the profit margin for airlines is non-existent these days, but maybe it could be done with more tax-payer funding. Still, even disregarding the expense it still doesn’t seem to me that it would significantly increase security.

    But I think your post underscores the point that we can never be completely safe from these sorts of attacks. As long as there are people who want to do us harm, they will try to find ways around the system and sometimes succeed. So in addition to efforts to try to prevent these sorts of attacks, we also need to focus on mitigating their effects (which would also lower their number as planes would become less of a target). With this in mind, I think the best thing the airlines have done (I think they already do this) is lock the pilots behind bullet-proof doors. This makes it very difficult for a hijacker to use the plane as a weapon. If we can limit the casualties of these attacks to the people on the plane, that would actually be a significant victory (see flight 93). It sounds callous to say it, but I think the argument holds up. If you could get a bomb to a place like a sports stadium or an office building, where security is not as tight, you could kill about as many people or more than are on an airplane. The main reason airplanes are such targets is their ability to do massive damage *outside” of the plane. If you minimize that possibility then airport security becomes a small issue.

  2. Interested

    December 28th, 2009 at 07:30

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    Most people don’t mind extra security steps as long as they’re consistent and reasonable. Of course those two things make it easier for the bad dudes to strike.

    Today’s travelers dislike the unnecessary attitudes you see from the TSA agents (Like my mom who got a shrill lecture about bringing on breath spray – my mom saying to just throw it away wasn’t quite enough for the agent). And current technology exists that improve on metal detectors – but we’re too sensitive that some Agent in another room may see a general outline of our body types.

    But above all, we can take comfort that this Administration’s representative thinks the system worked great.

  3. Interested

    December 28th, 2009 at 13:50

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    more thoughts. I think behavioral monitoring should be a requirement at all airports. Although this would be very difficult in your smaller feeder airports where part of their survival necessitates on security screening passengers.

    However, ACLU would be sue happy over it. Profiling and all. No matter that profiling has worked.

  4. Michael Merritt

    December 29th, 2009 at 05:35

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    I didn’t cover cost, but yes, I had thought about it. This type of skill is quite specialized. Maybe it’s not the best source for what it takes to become a behavioral analyst, but any viewer of the Fox show “Lie To Me” knows that it takes years of training to become proficient in it.

    Such skill does not come cheaply. It’s certainly not something you can teach to every TSA agent coming through your door.

    That said, I don’t think it is such a great thing to say, “Just live the fact that some people might die, but hey, at least more didn’t.” I am not one of those people who thinks that the government must provide security at the cost of freedom, but I do think if they can take efforts to provide it that don’t cross that line, they should do it.

    No matter that profiling has worked.

    Depends on what type of profiling you speak of. If you’re talking about racial profiling, it has not worked, given the race of the Christmas Day terrorist.

    However, there are some methods of profiling that can work, though I do note their possible limitations above.

  5. Mike

    December 29th, 2009 at 15:38

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    @Michael Merritt

    I don’t think it’s accurate to summarize my comment as “Just live the fact that some people might die, but hey, at least more didn’t.” For one thing, of course we always can do more in terms of security, but the principle of diminishing returns is at work here. At some point you have to say “the system isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough.” I don’t know if we’re at that point, but we have to ask the question at least.

    But more importantly, our emphasis on airport security isn’t consistent with the emphasis on security elsewhere. My main point is that if a terrorist cannot use an airplane as a precision missile, then the extent of the damage he can do is limited. Therefore, there are other targets that would be easier to hit that could do a comparable amount of damage. So why are we so focussed on airport security when there are other targets? Why must we use all means possible to prevent a person for boarding a plane with a bomb, but not do so for a stadium, an office building, a church, a mall, or anywhere else where a large number of people might gather?

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