Blogs & Comment

From pat-downs to chat-downs

North American aviation security officials are studying passengers' behaviour, part of a broader movement towards seeking bad people instead of dangerous objects.

(Photo: Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Thanks to the advent of the full body scanner, the chances of being subjected to a pat-down search before you catch your next flight are probably diminished. Depending on the outcome of several experiments conducted this year by North American transport security officials, however, you may face something else: a chat-down.

Bloomberg BusinessWeek reports that the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has begun deploying special officers at Boston Logan International Airport to question passengers as they move through the snake lines approaching airport security checkpoints. This sounds nearly identical to an experiment the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) wrapped up at Vancouver International Airport at the end of July.

Here’s the gist: A specially-trained officer may ask passengers where they’re flying and why, and may demand to see identification and travel documents. He’s interested not only in the factual content of the responses, but also the manner in which they’re delivered. Inconsistent stories, facial expressions and irritation may hint that the passenger should be directed to the “enhanced” screening line. It’s a form of what’s called behavioural analysis, and it’s one of many new elements that may appear at security checkpoints in the near future. I learned something about it while reporting on a recent story published in our magazine about post 9/11 security spending in Canada.

Aviation security (and most other forms of security) is notoriously reactive, changing mostly in response to devastating or embarrassing failures. One recent catalyst for change at airport checkpoints was Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, whom U.S. federal prosecutors accuse of attempting to detonate explosives stashed in his undergarments as Northwest Airlines Flight 253 descended toward Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport on Dec. 25, 2009. (Fortunately for the other 278 passengers and 11 crew members, the explosive fizzled. The 23-year-old Nigerian pleaded not guilty to terrorism-related charges, and will stand trial in October.) Abdulmutallab passed through checkpoints in Nigeria and The Netherlands before boarding the flight, causing much navel-gazing in security circles.

Might a behavioural screener have foiled him? A while back, I saw a documentary about the incident in which a fellow passenger on that flight was interviewed. She reported that she noticed Abdulmutallab behaving strangely in an airport lounge. She briefly considered mentioning this to airport officials but ultimately decided not to—a decision that later haunted her. That Abdulmutallab may have inadvertently revealed his intentions would not surprise aviation security experts. “The whole point about behavioural analysis,” explained Peter St. John, a retired professor of international relations with expertise in aviation security, “is that people can’t intend evil like bombing planes and so on without showing some of it in their behaviour.”

After Abdulmutallab’s gambit CATSA hired a Washington, D.C.-based consultancy, Asero Worldwide, to help tailor its experiment. “They helped us to write the program, employment qualifications, the different factors that needed to be evaluated, the overall design of the program,” CATSA spokesman Mathieu Larocque told me. The six-month pilot wrapped up this summer, and CATSA is now studying the results to determine whether such techniques should be introduced at other Canadian airports.

Exactly what CATSA’s behavioural screeners were looking for is unclear. Larocque would reveal only that they sought “something unusual, something that’s not consistent with a normal pre-board screening environment.” But behavioural analysis has been practiced for decades. The Israelis introduced it to aviation in the late 1960s, and since then it has found various applications at most airports throughout the world. Educated guesses are therefore possible.

“Passive” techniques involve observing passengers from a distance. A person paying unusual attention to the screening process might be regarded as suspicious. But since CATSA deployed its analysts in screening lanes, one might conclude most of their techniques are “active”—that is, involving direct interaction. Successive questions seek to establish whether the passenger’s story adds up. Someone who’s purchased a one-way ticket, paid cash, booked just a day or two before flight or checked no baggage may be singled out for more rigorous screening, as terrorists have done such things in connection with previous attacks. Those exhibiting nervousness or edginess might also get special treatment, and even subtle facial expressions may be studied. “The idea is you can analyze a person’s facial characteristics, mannerisms and see how they react to targeted questions,” an IATA spokesman told me.

Few question the efficacy of behavioural analysis, provided it’s conducted properly. But therein lies the rub. Some wonder whether CATSA is up to the task. Last year, the security committee of the Air Canada Pilots Association wrote in a white paper that unless CATSA can train behavioural screeners to the same standard as Israel’s, “closed circuit surveillance techniques in conjunction with facial recognition software may prove more effective in detecting criminal intent.” And since it has little faith in CATSA, the program may “cause more problems than it resolves.”

Behavioural analysis also inevitably raises thorny human rights issues. In theory it’s a refined discipline. In 2007, before the Air India Commission of Inquiry, RCMP Superintendent Alphonse MacNeil testified that Air Marshalls already do it. He said it’s never one reaction that raises the red flag, but rather an accumulation of clues. However, many security officials, including representatives of Transport Canada and CATSA, warn that in practice there’s a perilously fine line between behavioural analysis and racial or religious profiling. They fear front-line workers will apply their own prejudices, meaning behavioural analysis might target people simply for the imaginary crimes such as flying while Islamic. Indeed, some of its proponents argue that screening on a cultural basis is a reasonable practice.

Whether or not CATSA and TSA deploy behavioural analysis more widely, it’s symptomatic of a broader fundamental change underway. To date, most screening bodies in North America have generally subjected all passengers to the same indignities. They’ve screened for specific threats—liquid explosives, guns, ceramic knives—that could be used to harm aircraft and the people inside them. Anyone could find themselves being patted down. Behavioural analysis and no-fly lists represent a new “risk-based” approach, which seeks out bad people instead. The same philosophy drives NEXUS, a “trusted traveler” program introduced at airports earlier this year, in which passengers submit to detailed security checks in exchange for passes that help them clear security more quickly.

Many in the airline industry favour a risk-based approach. “Making everybody suffer inconvenience in the name of uniformity doesn’t make any sense at all and reduces the quality of security by dissipating resources,” argued Sir Martin Broughton, chairman of British Airways, in a speech earlier this year.  “Is it sensible to run exactly the same security checks on pilots—each and every time they fly—as, for example, a Yemeni student?”

IATA, the international trade association for airlines, shares this perspective. Since 9/11 there’s been a striking decrease in passengers taking short flights of less than 500 km, it reports, partly because it’s becoming quicker and more enjoyable to drive. That represents lost business for its member airlines. IATA expects the situation will worsen because today’s patchwork of procedures and technology cannot handle the flood of air passengers anticipated in coming years. At some airports it expects screening line throughput could fall by half within two years—an extreme outcome that would decimate airlines’ businesses.

Driven by this emerging philosophy, IATA has for the past several years been developing what it calls the “Checkpoint of the Future.” It unveiled a mock-up at its annual meeting in Singapore in June. As you approach, you insert your trusty biometric passport into a reading device, which assesses what’s known about you and decides to which tunnel you should be directed. One is for “known travelers” such as NEXUS cardholders. Another is ominously labeled “enhanced,” which contains more scanners than the others. Finally, there’s one reassuringly labeled “normal.” At each tunnel an iris scanner confirms your identity and tells you to proceed. Green lights flash as you stroll past an array of sensors with your baggage in tow. It’s like walking through an open-ended shipping container, and takes about as long.

IATA claims the technology necessary to build the Checkpoint of the Future will be available within five to seven years. It’s unclear how much of this highly conceptual model will survive the crucible of limited security budgets, competing national approaches and other realities. But what’s clear is that checkpoints continue to evolve toward a risk-based approach. “IATA’s right,” Larocque said. “We need to improve the process and use risk-based assessment and intelligence. We’re moving in that direction.” As for the behavioural screening experiment, CATSA is now compiling and analyzing the data from its Vancouver pilot project, which it will share with its overlords at Transport Canada. No date for a final decision has been set.