TOPICS > Nation

New Method for Identifying Suspicious Persons Used at Some Airports

September 8, 2006 at 1:56 PM EDT

TOM BEARDEN: The planes that destroyed the World Trade Center took off from Boston’s Logan Airport. Afterwards, the agency that operates the 84-year-old airport, the Massachusetts Port Authority, was lambasted in the press for poor security. But a lot has changed in the last five years.

In fact, Logan just won an award for dramatic improvements in security. The one getting the most attention is something called behavior pattern recognition. It means that, while today’s fliers surrender their water bottles and watch the clock, a lot of people are watching them with trained and practiced eyes. They are looking for people behaving suspiciously, and singling them out for greater scrutiny.

The Transportation Security Administration is now in the process of adopting the idea nationwide. Everybody who works at the airport, from federal baggage screeners, to state police, to ticket agents, to fast-food vendors, is required to receive training in the technique. There’s even a one-hour course for bus and cabdrivers who frequent the airport. Thomas Kinton, who now runs the entire Massachusetts Port Authority, is one of the people who began the program.

THOMAS KINTON, CEO, Massachusetts Port Authority: A trooper in plainclothes or in — in uniform may be observing a crowded terminal. The flow of that terminal may be left to right, for whatever reason. Maybe it’s the morning outbound traffic. If you have got somebody going against that flow, why?

More importantly, observe them. And, if they were going against the flow, and they had a bag in their hand, and the ticket counter was to the left, but they were heading to the right, and then they came back without the bag, that’s an important piece of behavior to get on right away. Or the way they’re walking, indicating whether they’re secreting something on their person, is another thing to zero in on.

TOM BEARDEN: If any observer sees behavior they believe is suspicious, they call in state police to ask questions, beginning with relatively simple ones.

THOMAS KINTON: Where they’re going. Can I see your travel documents? One, two, three questions, it’s over. Have a nice flight, safe trip, welcome home, whatever it is, if the questions have been answered right. If they’re not answered right, then you’re drilling down a little deeper.

And you’re saying, well, why are you here? Let me see some identification. What do you mean you’re meeting this person? You’re in the domestic terminal. This is not the international terminal.

Behavior pattern recognition

TOM BEARDEN: Consultant Rafi Ron worked with Kinton to develop behavior pattern recognition. It's based on a similar technique used at Israel's Ben Gurion Airport, where Ron was head of security. But Ron knew it had to be modified for the U.S.

RAFI RON, CEO, New Age Security Solutions: At Ben-Gurion Airport, we simply interview 100 percent of the passengers, something we cannot do here. At Logan Airport, we had to come up with something that would allow us to select, out of the thousands and thousands of people that go through the airport every day, those fewer number of people that we want to talk to.

TOM BEARDEN: The Transportation Security Administration is now beginning to roll out its own version of behavior pattern recognition, under the acronym SPOT, for screening of passengers by observation techniques. Psychologist Paul Ekman developed some of the training methods that TSA will use.

PAUL EKMAN, Psychologist: Micro expressions are concealed emotions. They last typically a twenty-fifth-of-a-second. Most often, they're fairly intense, but they're so fast that, without training, you don't see them.

TOM BEARDEN: He produced a computerized self-training program that will teach screeners how to recognize what he calls micro-facial expressions that can give away emotions.

PAUL EKMAN: And what it tells you is that the drooping of the upper eyelid could be a bit sleepy, bored, or what could be the beginning of sadness.


PAUL EKMAN: What was it?

TOM BEARDEN: I would say fear.

PAUL EKMAN: OK. We will go to the next.

TOM BEARDEN: Surprise.


TOM BEARDEN: Oh, it's way too fast for me. Disgust.

PAUL EKMAN: And now what it -- what it's doing is, it's calculating what...

TOM BEARDEN: How bad I was, yes.

PAUL EKMAN: ... got right. So, you got 43 percent.

TOM BEARDEN: That's better than I thought.

PAUL EKMAN: That's not terrible, but you want to do better.

Technology is not fool proof

TOM BEARDEN: Behaviorists like Ron and Ekman say the U.S. has, for too long, relied exclusively on technology, and concentrated too much on finding things, instead of identifying people who might be a threat. Part of that is cultural, the democratization of security, screen everybody for everything.

But Ekman and Ron say, technology is predictable, and, therefore, vulnerable. Ekman says, adding behavior to the list of things to look out for, and having trained interrogators question people so identified is hard to beat.

PAUL EKMAN: You can't defeat it. It's an involuntary action. We have tested over 10,000 people in law enforcement. They don't see it. An hour's training with a C.D. on their own, they can see it.

TOM BEARDEN: But Ekman says, more basic research is needed to make sure screeners are properly trained.

PAUL EKMAN: We don't know, nor does SPOT, how effective is that training? We need to do the evaluation and find out what percentage of the people trained remember two weeks later.

When do you need a refresher course? Does everybody benefit? Or I think they spend more than three days in SPOT. Do you need five, or would do two do just as good as three? This is not rocket science.

TOM BEARDEN: Ron thinks that the TSA's SPOT program, which will only train federal screeners, doesn't go far enough in training those who will do the questioning. He points out that shoe bomber Richard Reid was interrogated by untrained French police before he boarded his flight and was allowed to proceed.

The Massachusetts State Police get three hours of training. TSA says local police will be given a one-hour course in questioning techniques. In Israel, interrogators are trained for months.

RAFI RON: I think that the -- while TSA can recognize suspicious behavior, at the end of the day, they call in a law enforcement officer to interview the person. And if this law enforcement officer doesn't have the skills to do that, it is -- he is doomed to fail.

JOHN REINSTEIN, Legal Director, Massachusetts ACLU: What we're going to get is a reintroduction of racial or ethnic profiling.

TOM BEARDEN: John Reinstein is worried about inadequate police training, too. He's the legal director of the Massachusetts American Civil Liberties Union. Reinstein characterizes TSA's proposed training program as bargain-basement.

JOHN REINSTEIN: I think what you're asking of the screeners is to exercise an extraordinary amount of judgment, based on a range of particularly subjective factors. And, under those circumstances, I think that it is likely that -- that ethnic or racial profiling will creep back in. I -- I think, in a system where people expect terrorists to be of a particular ethnicity, those are the people they're going to find.

Legal problems

TOM BEARDEN: The ACLU has filed a lawsuit against Massport and the state police, saying that ordering officers to approach and question people and to ask for documents before they enter the airport's security zone is a violation of the constitutional right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure.

George Naccara, the federal security director at Logan, says, anybody using race as part of behavior pattern recognition is simply doing it wrong.

GEORGE NACCARA, Federal Security Director, Logan Airport: We find that terrorists come in different sizes and shapes and -- and colors. And we're looking for behaviors purely. Race is not a factor on our score sheet. We have a very formal process, which is different from other derivatives of this system. Our -- our formal process identifies many, many behaviors that we're looking for. And -- and race is not a factor.

RAFI RON: When we started the program at Logan Airport, we had more lawyers in the room than trainees. They -- but it -- it was right. And I respected that, because I think that we do need to work 100 percent within the law, and 100 percent within what the American public, they -- wants. And this is also to preserve civil rights.

TOM BEARDEN: The argument over racial profiling aside, Ron and Massport officials say, behavior pattern recognition by itself isn't enough. Logan has a layered security system. It includes random roadblocks on approach roads and a new 10-foot-high concrete wall topped with barbed wire. Bomb-sniffing dogs are on almost continuous patrol. And state police officers openly walk the terminals armed with powerful submachine guns.

TROOPER KEVIN MULLEN, Massachusetts State Police: Deterrent would definitely be the word. I think that's why they implemented this, to -- a little show of force, and also maybe a comfort factor for the public. But I think the main mission definitely is the deterrent factor, though.

'The 8:30'

TOM BEARDEN: Logan was the first U.S. airport to install explosive detection scanners connected by miles of conveyor belts. It spent $146 million of its own money, before there was any discussion of federal reimbursement.

Logan was also among the first airports to install permanent concrete bollards curbside to keep potential car and truck bombs from crashing into the terminals. And they have expensive stainless steel trash bins, designed to contain explosions and vent them upwards. There are even infrared cameras to scan the surrounding bay for boats that come too close to the restricted zone marked out by security buoys.

But one of the most important innovations takes place in a conference room. Logan Airport officials say, one of the keys to their entire security plan is a simple morning meeting. They call it the 8:30. We weren't allowed to photograph it or disclose where it takes place. But they say it's the reason the many federal, state and local agencies who often have overlapping jurisdictions here, are able to work together.

GEORGE NACCARA: We're in a room every morning at 8:30, Saturday and Sunday included, every holiday included, ever since September 12, 2001. And it -- it causes us to focus on the security events of the previous day and -- and the events of the -- of the coming day.

TOM BEARDEN: I'm told one of the biggest values of that meeting is that it eliminates turf battles.

GEORGE NACCARA: Absolutely. Again, it allows us to share opinions, to -- to assess our response effectiveness, and we -- we don't lay blame.

TOM BEARDEN: Kinton says, the frequent contacts between agencies have made it easier for the various bureaucracies to overcome their rivalries and work together.

THOMAS KINTON: Years ago, it was a struggle. They value it today. They participate. They -- they welcome it. They welcome the interaction and the support. So, I think we have broken down that stovepipe approach, and have communicated across the line, and learned to respect one another.

TOM BEARDEN: During the week we were at Logan, it experienced two major security incidents: the revelation of the U.K.-based plot to bomb 10 passenger jets bound for America, and a flight diverted here because of the actions of a disturbed passenger. Kinton says, the 8:30 made it all go smoothly.

THOMAS KINTON: I was out there as that aircraft was landing. Sixty percent of the people I knew from the 8:30 meeting, from law enforcement, TSA, city of Boston, EMS, and so forth, were all people we interact with on a daily basis.

TOM BEARDEN: Logan officials say, their system works so well that, after the diverted plane incident, the airport was debriefed and back to near normal at 1:30 the same afternoon. That used to take a week.

The 8:30 meetings, behavior pattern recognition, stronger perimeters, just a few of the many lessons Logan officials say they learned from September 11 -- the result is an overall security system, they believe, will go a long way to prevent something similar from ever happening here again.