Doug Kinsey stands near the security line at Dulles International Airport, watching the passing crowd in silence. Suddenly, his eyes lock on a passenger in jeans and a baseball cap.
The man in his 20s looks around the terminal as though he's searching for something. He chews his fingernails and holds his boarding pass against his mouth, seemingly worried.
Kinsey, a Transportation Security Administration screener, huddles with his supervisor, Waverly Cousins, and the two agree: The man could be a problem. Kinsey moves in to talk to him.
The episode this month is one of dozens of encounters airline passengers are having each day — often unwittingly — with a fast-growing but controversial security technique called behavior detection. The practice, pioneered by Israeli airport security, involves picking apparently suspicious people out of crowds and asking them questions about travel plans or work. All the while, their faces, body language and speech are being studied.
The TSA has trained nearly 2,000 employees to use the tactic, which is raising alarms among civil libertarians and minorities who fear illegal arrests and ethnic profiling. It's also worrying researchers, including some in the Homeland Security Department, who say it's unproven and potentially ineffectual.
"Terrorists or anybody who knows about screening will find this very easy to beat if you give them a little training," says Michigan State University professor Timothy Levine, who's published more than a dozen papers on deception and communication.
Advocates say behavior detection strengthens security by replacing "hunches" about who seems troublesome and worthy of scrutiny with research that shows how suspicious people actually look, sound and act.
Its growing use portends a transformation in airport security, and perhaps beyond. The technique could be used in anything from interrogations to job interviews. U.S. troops, FBI agents, Customs officers, consular officials, personnel managers and thousands of police at dozens of agencies have been trained to observe whether suspects, informants or applicants are being truthful. Bus drivers, airline ticket agents and airport custodians, sales clerks and waiters are getting milder instruction in spotting odd behavior.
At the vanguard is the TSA, which plans to train 600 more screeners in the next year and have "behavior-detection officers" in every major airport to spot possible terrorists.
"We have to get out front and take the fight to them and let them know that when they show up at an airport, they're susceptible to being identified," TSA chief Kip Hawley says.
The future could be a "Blade Runner" world of cameras and body scanners that monitor voice, movement, speech, gait, pulse, perspiration and body odor to spot suspicious people. Federal agencies are pouring millions of dollars into automated sensors that could read vital signs and help flag suspicious people. One leading San Francisco researcher, Paul Ekman, says he's gotten Defense Department funding to finish his work building an interactive training game that teaches people to be alert for facial expressions that often precede a physical assault.
"Computer power can extract patterns the human wouldn't see," says University of Arizona psychologist Judee Burgoon. She led a recent Air Force- and Homeland Security-funded study that analyzed technology utilizing video cameras to chart tell-tale hand and head movements. "Much needs to be done" before machines can accurately analyze people, the study concluded, but the research "is a small first step."
Computerized physiological readings chill researchers such as David Matsumoto of San Francisco State University, who's spent 25 years studying how people reveal emotion in split-second "microexpressions" that flash across their faces. "We're talking about feelings we don't want others to know in the first place," he says. Authorities "are becoming privy to information we're not consenting to give."
Hawley, who has emerged as the government's leading behavior-detection advocate, says automated detection "is in the far distant future." The TSA's present system, he says, "is phenomenally successful" — even if more than 90% of questionable people turn out innocent.
At Dulles last week, Kinsey, the TSA behavior officer, approached a suspicious passenger going through security and guided the man to an open area for additional screening. Kinsey did a routine passport and boarding-pass check, searched the man's messenger-style bag and chatted him up while paying attention to what he said and how he said it.
The man had caught Kinsey's eye not just because he acted nervously, but because he acted differently. Other travelers shuffling blankly along the security line that quiet afternoon showed all the emotion of cattle. This passenger's contrasting anxiety showed, in TSA parlance, "deviations from baseline behavior." He merited a closer look, a face-to-face conversation where Kinsey could scrutinize his body, voice and speech to see if his score on a TSA checklist rose to a level requiring police attention.
"We're looking to see if there's any cognitive overload in responses to simple questions like, How are you today? Where are you headed?" says Carl Maccario, a TSA program analyst in Boston who helped launch the agency program at Logan International Airport in 2003. "If you're trying to be deceptive or up to some malfeasance, people can pick up cues the body will display when that conflict is going on."
But the ability of screeners to reliably detect deceit during conversations is questioned by Homeland Security researchers, who early this year launched a study of what security officials should look for to find dangerous people. "The research in this area is fairly immature," says Larry Willis, who manages the department's Project Hostile Intent. "We're trying to establish whether there is something to detect."
When Kinsey asked questions, the anxious look that the passenger wore in the security line melted into a smile as he explained how he got confused going through the unfamiliar Dulles terminal to make a connecting flight. Assured by the passenger's chatty comfort and by his own search, Kinsey wished him a good trip without taking down his name.
A variety of charges
The encounter underscored the rarity of problems that the TSA program has uncovered since January 2006 when it was expanded from a handful of airports.
In that time, 43,000 of the millions of travelers watched by crowd-scanning behavior-detection screeners have appeared suspicious enough to warrant a closer look, the TSA says. The closer looks generated 3,100 calls from the TSA to police for further questioning.
The police arrested 278 of those people, none on terror charges. Among the charges described in TSA news releases about behavior-related arrests are immigration violations and possessing guns and illegal prescription drugs.
At least one behavior-related stop has "developed meaningful information of interest to the intelligence community," Hawley says. And many people who were questioned by police but not arrested were found with problems that could indicate terrorist intent, such as having fake identifications or appearing to do surveillance. Such incidents are logged with a subject's name into a federal database.
"The vast majority of them are hiding something," Hawley says of travelers who raise the highest level of suspicion.
The program has won converts among skeptics such as security technologist Bruce Schneier. The frequent TSA critic says behavior detection may be "really powerful" because it tries to find terrorists instead of keeping them from carrying an ever-changing list of dangerous objects on airplanes. "If you focus on a tactic, the terrorists pick a different tactic. This focuses on the bad guy," Schneier says.
But critics who question behavior detection wonder if the TSA could net the same number of criminals by randomly pulling 43,000 travelers aside for extra screening and a few questions.
"It doesn't seem like a lot of arrests, given how easy it is to arrest someone," says Barry Steinhardt, head of the American Civil Liberties Union's liberty and technology program. "It's a waste of law-enforcement resources" on a "completely unproven" program. James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, supports the concept of singling out travelers based on behavior but fears that relying on screener observations could lead to ethnic profiling. "Any time you move from an objective system to one that is subjective, it is prone to abuse," Zogby says.
Many leading researchers cite potential drawbacks and flaws but say behavior detection backed up by research and ample training can focus and improve security.
"The question is, by how much and at what cost?" says Bella DePaulo, a prominent deception researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "And by cost, I don't mean money. I mean the cost of falsely accusing or stopping people. If this program becomes known and somebody gets pulled over, there's a cloud of suspicion."
The method by which screeners spot suspicious air travelers is questioned by Ekman, the San Francisco psychologist and one of the first deception scientists. Research and training has focused on people's ability to detect deceit during interviews — not from silently watching someone, Ekman says.
Ekman jump-started deception detection in the 1960s when he studied a film of a psychiatric patient assuring doctors that she was not suicidal and could be released. Days later, the woman committed suicide. Scouring the film, Ekman noticed fleeting facial expressions on the patient lasting one-fifteenth of a second — he called them "microexpressions" — that revealed the distress she tried to hide. Ekman's theory — that people reveal their true emotions through facial expressions, words, gestures and other uncontrollable responses — is the basis of contemporary behavior detection.
Ekman advised TSA officials while they were developing their system four years ago. His company, the Ekman Group, was paid $1 million to train 1,200 TSA inspectors last month in his interviewing technique. He proposed a study to Homeland Security researchers to find behaviors indicating hostile intent among travelers walking around airports.
"We might find things that are important clues that someone has malevolent intent," Ekman says.
Willis, the Homeland Security researcher, said efforts are now focused on interviewing travelers, "not the broader and more difficult area of suspicious behavior detection."
Levine, the Michigan State researcher, saw his suspicions of behavior-detection science grow when he did a study in 2005 of how well three groups of subjects detected lies told by lab volunteers. The subjects who were told to look for lies by focusing on the volunteers' foot-tapping and other meaningless behaviors did just as well at lie-detection as subjects who watched facial expressions and other supposed cues to deceit. Those two groups did much better than a third group that got no instructions.
"With training, you just get people paying attention a little more," Levine says. That might help security officers find easy-to-spot terrorists such as Richard Reid, the shoe-bomber who looked to fellow passengers like he was crazed but nonetheless was allowed on the Paris-to-Miami flight. "And catching the Richard Reids," Levine says, "is a good thing."