Tag: suspicious behavior

TSA Behavioral Screening

Behavioral screening is a useful tool in deterring and preventing terrorist attacks. As I noted in this piece at Politico, a border patrol agent successfully used behavioral screening to stop the would-be Millennium Bomber. She noticed something “hinky” about a man driving south across the Canadian border. That “hinky” – fidgety and nervous behavior when asked routine customs questions – exposed a car full of explosives intended for the passenger terminal of Los Angeles International Airport.

Two items from the USA Today travel section highlight some mixed results with TSA behavioral screening. Today’s edition reports that behavioral screening, applied by Behavioral Detection Officers (BDOs) missed at least 16 people later linked to terror plots. On the other side of the equation, false positives can impose burdens on those who are nervous or upset for reasons other than terrorism aspirations.

The TSA Blog defended the program: “If you’re one of those travelers that gets frazzled easily (not hard to do at airports), you have no reason to worry. BDOs set a baseline based on the normal airport behavior and look for behaviors that go above that baseline. So if you’re stressing about missing a flight, that’s not a guaranteed visit from the BDOs.”

That would be reassuring if yesterday’s travel section hadn’t revealed that TSA screeners are keeping a list of those who get upset at intrusive screening procedures. “Airline passengers who get frustrated and kick a wall, throw a suitcase or make a pithy comment to a screener could find themselves in a little-known Homeland Security database.”

Of course, we can take comfort from the words of a TSA screener to security expert Bruce Schneier. “This isn’t the sort of job that rewards competence, you know.”

9/11: All the PSA We Needed

Right on the heels of my post the other day discussing the error in inviting terrorism reporting, here’s another video (and suspicious-activity-reporting Web site) produced by the Los Angeles Police Department.

The production values in this video are hipper, and L.A. appears to have its share of actors willing to look concerned about terrorism. But really, the attacks of September 11, 2001 were all the Public Service Announcement we needed to encourage reporting of genuine suspicions.

Asking amateurs for tips about terrorism will have many wasteful and harmful results, like racial and ethnic discrimination, angry neighbors turning each other in, and—given the rarity of terrorism—lots and lots of folks just plain getting it wrong. People with expertise—even in very limited domains—can discover suspicious circumstances in their worlds almost automatically when they find things “hinky.”

My impressions of the LAPD were formed up in the late 80’s and early 90’s when I lived in southern California. To encourage reporting, what that department needs most is to make the community confident of its own fairness and competence. Reporting of meritorious suspicions will naturally follow that. There’s no need for it to artificially gin up crime or terrorism reporting.

Good Athelete, Not a Good Terrorist Hunter

The leading theory about this video is that John Elway would say anything for a buck. That’s fine for him to do, of course. But the producers of the video below inadvertently illustrate the difficulty of generating suspicion about terrorists (or any other thing) artificially.

The video goes through eight signs of terrorism, on which they say “experts agree.” They are signs of terrorism, in a sense, but they are signs of lots of other things too. If Coloradans contacted authorities as instructed in the video, they would inundate law enforcement with false reports, possibly obscuring truly suspicious information. I wrote about properly generated suspicion and my testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee touching on these issues a couple of years ago.

Asking amateurs for tips about suspicious behavior will have many wasteful and harmful results, like racial and ethnic discrimination, angry neighbors turning each other in, and lots and lots of folks just plain getting it wrong. But people with expertise—even in very limited domains—can discover suspicious circumstances, almost automatically, when they find things “hinky.”

Given the rarity of terrorists and terrorism planning in this country, hunting terrorists using the list of “signs” in this video would cause people to be wrong about 100% of the time. Americans have much of the knowledge and all the incentive they need to report truly suspicious activity without videos encouraging them to see terrorism in every shadow.