Security screeners at 40 major airports across the country will be trained next year to use casual conversation to flush out possible terrorists.
The Transportation Security Administration will first teach screeners what suspicious behaviors to look for in travelers. These can include nervousness, wearing a big coat in the summer or reluctance to make eye contact with law enforcement. Then, the screener will quiz passengers on their travel plans in hopes of spotting possible terrorists.
The security technique, called behavior detection or behavior-pattern recognition, is already in place at several major airports, including those in Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Miami and Houston. Behavior detection is a common practice among police officers and customs agents, who often engage arriving passengers they suspect in more detailed conversation. But the proposed program that will be put in place at airport security checkpoints nationwide adds a psychological dimension to the screening process.
Boston Logan International Airport began a pilot program for behavior screening in 2002. Shortly after 9/11, the airport brought in an Israeli security specialist who helped train Massachusetts police in behavior screening.
Currently, the TSA screeners do the initial risk assessment and then hand over any suspicious passengers to police for further questioning.
George Naccara, the federal security director at Logan, called the program "a good use of taxpayers' dollars." Screeners have not found anyone with terrorist connections but by looking for suspicious behavior have found drug dealers, illegal immigrants and people with outstanding arrest warrants.
The American Civil Liberties Union has warned that the screening technique could result in racial profiling.
"This is a code word for targeting brown-skinned males between ages 17 and 45 years. It's not only racial profiling, it's ethnic profiling," said Timothy Sparapani, who oversees privacy rights for the ACLU.
Naccara welcomed the criticism.
"The ACLU is a good check and balance on us. ... We welcome the scrutiny. But the essence of our program is based on studying behavioral characteristics rather than physical characteristics," he said.
Psychologists recognize behavior screening as a legitimate tool that can be used in law enforcement, but caution it can be abused.