TSA ‘Behavioral Officers’ look for the obvious

TSA Gadling Behavior Detection OfficersOur pals over at AOL Travel are reporting that the TSA has “behavioral indicator officers” who attempt to observe people in security lines to determine if anyone is a security risk. So, if you still think that it’s funny to make bomb jokes while waiting to pass through the x-ray machine, you might want to start working on some new material. The TSA, meanwhile, might want to consider that travel, in general, and airport security, in particular, tend to make even the most docile people uncomfortable. Are the Behavior Detection Officers (that’s the TSA’s official term) keeping us safer or just adding another layer of nuisance to the airport security process?According to the TSA website,

TSA’s BDO-trained security officers are screening travelers for involuntary physical and physiological reactions that people exhibit in response to a fear of being discovered. TSA recognizes that an individual exhibiting some of these behaviors does not automatically mean a person has terrorist or criminal intent. BDOs do, however, help our security officers focus appropriate resources on determining if an individual presents a higher risk or if his/her behavior has a non-threatening origin. Individuals exhibiting specific observable behaviors may be referred for additional screening at the checkpoint to include a handwanding, limited pat down and physical inspection of one’s carry-on baggage. Referrals are based on specific observed behaviors only, not on one’s appearance, race, ethnicity or religion.

You know who exhibits involuntary physical and physiological reactions in response to TSA screenings? A very large segment of the population. Between patting down children, radiating travelers and blatant xenophobia, the TSA hasn’t exactly installed confidence in the general public. So, it’s only natural that completely innocent travelers might exhibit signs of fear while waiting to be screened by poorly trained security agents.

At present, all travelers are presumed guilty until scanned innocent. That makes many people outraged, nervous and downright scared. Will these TSA Behavior Detection Officers be able to differentiate an anxious terrorist and a nervous flier? Seeing as how how the TSA has a history of overstepping its bounds, it’s hard for us to be confident in their profiling skills.

Oh, and there’s that word: profiling. Sure, the TSA statement specifically says that these officers are not looking at anyone’s “appearance, race, ethnicity or religion,” but this still opens the door to sweeping generalizations or assumptions about anyone who simply looks nervous. Some people are so terrified of flying that they start sweating and acting nervously the moment they enter an airport. What happens if you happen to be a dark-skinned, bearded aerophobic? Seems to me that you’ll be singled out and forced to explain to a TSA officer who has singled you out as a risk that you are scared to fly.

What the TSA’s website fails to explain is what types of training these Behavior Detection Officers have received. There are pyschologists who spend their entire careers studying human behaviors and responses to fear. What have these TSA officers been taught? Who taught them?

Terrorists, one would imagine, are psychopaths. People who are detached from reality are more likely to be at peace with their dangerous decisions. A terrorist can act calmly going through security. A nervous flier or a traveler who is offended by be treated like a criminal will exhibit fear. At the end of the day, it seems that the presence of these Behavior Detection Officers will just make more innocent people nervous.

What will these Behavior Detection Officers find? Most likely, a lot of people who are scared to fly, hate the TSA or who just simply have overactive sweat glands.