Make air travel safer through profiling - of behavior, not race

November 16, 2006|By Eben Kaplan

Planning on flying this Thanksgiving? Expect some company; the Air Transport Association anticipates that 25 million Americans will take to the skies during the holiday, a 3 percent increase from last year.

Complicating matters are new rules requiring carry-on liquids and gels to be placed in 3-ounce containers and sealed inside a quart-sized zip-top baggie. If my last airport experience is typical, confused, water-bottle-bearing passengers will hold up screening lines as they are relieved of contraband.

Americans say they're willing to endure long lines if they make us safer, but how much safer are we? Since the foiled liquid-explosives plot in London, we've all heard how our current passenger screening methods are insufficient. Such reports often call for new gadgets, from "puffers" that detect explosive residue on a person or a bag to backscatter X-rays that trace the contours of a person's body in search of foreign objects. These systems could help improve security, but they don't guarantee it.

Evidence suggests that rather than fixate solely on keeping harmful objects off of planes, our government should invest in efforts to keep harmful people from boarding.

In 14 airports, including Dulles, the Transportation Security Administration is testing a technique known as behavior pattern recognition, or BPR. Based on techniques used for decades at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport - widely regarded as the world's safest - BPR deploys highly trained officers at checkpoints. Their job is to observe the passengers in line and to watch for potentially suspicious behavior. Officers will approach people doing things as seemingly benign as sweating excessively, fidgeting or talking on a pay phone, and ask to speak with them.

This is not an interrogation but rather a casual conversation during which the officer looks for explanations for the suspicious behavior, as well as signs - such as telling facial expressions or evasive answers - that the person has something to hide. Nearly everyone interviewed is allowed to go after a minute or two. The few who arouse further suspicion are thoroughly searched and questioned.

"[BPR] has proven more effective than any other aviation security measure," says Rafi Ron, the former director of security at Ben Gurion Airport, who is working with the TSA to adapt the Israeli system for use in the United States.

So far, the results are promising: In addition to apprehending a few suspected terrorists, the program has also netted a raft of criminals (who often exhibit the same suspicious behaviors).

Some opponents of BPR decry it as profiling, and indeed it is. But rather than profiling on the basis of race, gender or religion, BPR profiles behaviors. In order to prevent BPR from violating civil liberties, officers must be exceptionally trained. The TSA's current BPR program has been aptly criticized for insufficient officer training.

Of course, BPR is not foolproof. After arousing the suspicions of a BPR screener, would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid was flagged for a thorough search, yet the French police who detained him for an hour failed to find the same thing that the metal detector missed: the bomb strapped to his foot. This does not mean either technique should be abandoned; rather, both should be improved.

The best security is achieved when there are multiple layers of protection. Current screening procedures are effective in their own right and should continue, but if we're to wait in long lines, we should expect to be made as safe as reasonably possible. This means deploying properly trained BPR screeners in all U.S. airports, a move that could save hundreds, maybe thousands, of lives.

Eben Kaplan is assistant editor of CFR.org, the Web site of the Council on Foreign Relations. His e-mail is ekaplan@cfr.org.

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