TSA watch: Do “chat-downs” make you feel safer about flying?

By | August 20th, 2011

The last time I tried to engage a TSA agent in conversation, it was just before getting an enhanced pat-down earlier this year. I introduced myself and he mumbled something that I don’t remember.

Let’s just say he wasn’t very talkative.

That’s about to change.

For the next two months, TSA screeners in Boston are engaging each passenger in what’s described as “casual conversation” in an effort to detect suspicious behavior. After passengers provide their boarding pass and ID, they have to answer a few questions from TSA officers.

According to the agency, here’s how its behavior detection program will work.

The vast majority of passengers at the pilot checkpoints will experience a “casual greeting” conversation with a Behavior Detection Officer (BDO) as they go through identity verification. This enhanced interaction is used by security agencies worldwide and will enable officers to better verify or dispel suspicious behavior and anomalies.

For details on what the officers are looking for, listen to this NPR story about the program.

Although the initiative is described as a test, I wouldn’t be surprised if plans are already underway to deploy “chat-downs” nationwide.

Questions about effectiveness

So will this work?

“Chat downs” have been used on a limited scale since 2003, according to the agency. The TSA’s Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program, which targets only suspicious passengers for interroga … I mean, conversations, is already used in 160 airports. It has led to the arrest 2,000 criminals. None have been charged with terrorism.

Not only is the program ineffective, say critics. It’s also wasteful. In a letter (PDF) to TSA Administrator John Pistole, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) pointed out that the government investigation found that SPOT had been deployed without conducting a comprehensive risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis.

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“As Congress and the Executive Branch continue to negotiate historic reductions in federal spending, it is curious that TSA continues to deploy personnel and devote dwindling budget resources to this unproven, costly and potentially ineffective security screening protocol,” he wrote.

But wait. If just one casual conversation can save a planeload of people from being incinerated, then why not?

And doesn’t Israel use sophisticated techniques that include asking questions? And isn’t the Israeli model considered the “gold” standard for airport security?

Count me among the skeptics. I’m not as concerned with blowing the budget as I am about “false” positives. Would someone who is simply uncomfortable being questioned (like me) get sent off to a private room for additional screening? What if you’re just a nervous flier? Will you get a once-over from a blueshirt?

Also, these BDOs roaming the airports seem just a little too close to the “papers please” agents from every totalitarian regime and dystopian novel I can remember.

The answer to the question of “will this work” is probably “yes.” It’ll catch a lot of petty criminals (not TSA’s job, by the way) and maybe a terrorist or two. But at what price?

Interrogating airline passengers in the Land of the Free. Who would have thought the day would ever come?

(Photo Leonard Mat thews/Flickr)

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