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

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.

“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)

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

More Posts - Website - Twitter - Facebook - LinkedIn - Google Plus

  • Tom

    The TSA is like the Post Office. It is here to stay no matter what happens.

    40 years after e-mail, 25 years after including long distance in basic cell rates, 15 years after texting, the Post Office has yet to lay off a single person and is unlikely to close a single one of its 37,000 offices. Government work and government jobs are very sticky.

    So all the blathering about the TSA’s inconvenience, intrusiveness, illegality, abusiveness etc., doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. The TSA is going to around forever and will likely keep growing. Interrogating passengers just gives the TSA officers something to do when they aren’t visiting Cinabon. 

  • Exitzero

    I am the guardian of a man with Down Syndrome. We fly once a year. He’s likely to tell the TSA anything!

    Sheesh, I could end up in Guantanamo! 

  • Raven

    And…now that these clowns can unionize, they are just going to get worse.

  • James Babb Ⓐ

    I don’t talk to child molesters.

  • brandinius

    So if we were to reply with a short phrase like, “noneyabizniz,” would that result in a retaliatory secondary search? In other words, do we HAVE to respond to these ogres?

  • Suze

    As a journalist and a expat Brit, my husband and I travel a lot. Unfortunately outbound for the last 10 yrs is from Phila Int’l. I say unfortunately because most of the larger Int’l airports–JFK, SFO, DFW, LAX even JAX have TSA agents who are a bit more “cosmopolitan”…the TSA nutters in Phila always pull my preppy 6’3, blazer-wearing husband out of line or me because we aren’t wearing our jeans half way down our rears, don’t have piercings or tattoes and probably because I don’t speak “street” English…so now they’re going to “chat me up”? They can’t even speak properly, how on earth are they going to manage that? Phila airport is the worst in the country–in my 40+ years of travelling the world we win hand down for worst airport–maybe Newark is a close second–but first they need to clean up their TSA agents and teach them to speak properly–I don’t need a street gangsta “chatting” me up. That’s me 2 cents worth of rant altho highly agree with Tom–9/11 created TSA and they’re here to stay.  

  • Krkranz86

    Whenever I fly, I always try engage the TSA agents with some kind of quick conversation. From the agent that compares my ticket to my ID, to the agent waving me through the metal detector. It’s always something along the lines of ”hey, how are you today? Have a great day…stay safe.” The “stay safe” usually warrants a smile/positive response.  I don’t mind super quick conversation but what I worry about is when you are being held up in conversation with a TSA agent as youre potentially close to missing a flight, agitated because of something, and youre pulled aside for further discussion when you are in a mindset of getting to where youre going.

    The difference with the Israeli program is that they talk to you before you get to the airport….as you are driving up to the terminal. Not as youre documents are being checked and youre being cleared through a security checkpoint.

  • Sweepergrl

    FYI: The USPS is currently legally unable to lay off any permanent employe. Changing that one of the propositions they presented to Congress. Poor comparison choice, but understandable point.

  • deemery

    ‘Chat downs’ may be even more annoying, but at least there’s a substantial correlation between this approach and detecting bad guys.  I’ve always found the purely random searches by TSA to be mathematically stupid and ineffective.

  • Karen C.

    I have a brain-injured adult son who looks relatively normal. The last time we flew the TSA separated us to question him and would not believe me that within 5 minutes he would forget where he was or why, despite the fact that I showed them his Medic Alert medallion that says that. Sorry, most of those employed by the TSA just don’t seem bright enough, no matter how much training they have, to discern anything through this new “chat-down” as you’ve so aptly dubbed it. They are still looking for terrorists in all the wrong places.

  • cjr001

    I’ve seen any number of USPS offices close in my neck of the woods, so…

  • cjr001

    The problem isn’t the plan, imo. It’s who’s implementing it. I’ve said several times that behavioral detection methods need to be used here.

    But TSA is such a clusterf*ck that can’t do anything else right, that I can’t expect them – in their current form – to do such detection right either. 

  • Joan Eisenstodt

    Here’s the thing: it works in Israel and for ElAl bec. they are trained entirely differently. Their conversations are far more “targeted” than casual. I engaged TSA in a conversation after an agent hit me in the head w/ a stack of bins. That conversation and the one (eventually) w/ a supervisor weren’t not satisfactory. I can’t imagine there will be effective conversations. I concur with what a few others have written: unless TSA hires and specifically trains people to do this, it’s one more band-aid.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1556838763 Nancy Marine Dickinson

    I’ve been engaged in conversation by TSA agents pretty much every time I’ve flown over the last few years.  Whenever I’ve shown my ticket and ID to get past into security, I’ve had the agent ask me how I am, where I’m flying, who’s this handsome young man with you (my son, when he travels with me), etc.  I’ve always walked away smiling.  (This happens in the Tucson Airport)  Whether this has been part of the partial program, I have no idea, I just know they’re pretty friendly in Tucson.  Once I was asked to remove a bulky sweatshirt before entering the security line.  It wasn’t “demanded” of me, the TSA agent walked over and, very politely, asked me, “Would you be so good as to remove your sweater before getting in line?” with a smile on her face.

    IMHO, if the TSA agents actually know who we are, they might take more seriously their role in keeping us safe.  We stop being just a faceless name and become a person.  Humanizing us to TSA goes a long way towards their feeling more responsibility towards keeping us all safe.

    The traveling public responds VERY well to a friendly face.  I’m guessing TSA will find some way to muck this up and the agents themselves will be surly, thereby making EVERYONE nervous and, thereby, negating the purpose of the whole program.

  • Jerry

    This is just another step to think we are safer.  This new program is using agents with a week of training though they are supposedly only using “college educated” agents.  Its a good thing I am not flying anytime soon.  But if I did, I would tell them “I do not give out personal information to non law enforcement personnel”.  The thing is that the agent asking the questions can not detain you if you move forward to the screening area.  Same goes for the ID checker asking you to pronounce your name.  The TSA has said that they have no legal authority to ask you to pronounce your name. 

  • Dave_D70

    How about those of us who are deaf or severely hard of hearing?
    How is this “chat down” thing going to work for us?

  • Linda

    I agree with you about the people in the TSA.  My first flight after 9-11 was in Nov that year.  I was stunned to see who they’d hired.  I was wondering if they went to all the local malls and recruited the rent-a-cops there.  What is their training?  Is it more than a couple weeks?  My law enforcement relatives had to go through 7 levels of background/mental prescreening to even get the chance to be hired and sent to a 3 month intensive training school.  Some that they’ve hired I do have confidence in but a lot I question what their education level is–high school drop outs??

  • Mark

    Had a chat down this week in Boston.  Reasonable guy — quick to the point conversation.  30 seconds or so. Suit — not a blue shirt.

    Not sure it will make a difference but it did not get in the way and if it will help at all I am for it.

  • Fisher1949

    Like the rest of TSA, this initiative is nothing more than a jobs program for misfits and criminals. This will provide yet another mechanism for TSA to arbitrarily abuse and harass innocent travelers while supplying an excuse for their excesses.

    This agency has been a colossal failure. It does nothing to assure airline security but traumatizes more passengers and their children than Al Qaeda.

    The failure of the FBI and CIA to share information enabled 9/11, not the private screening firms. In typical Washington stupidity, the Government agencies failed and 9/11 resulted so the remedy is to punish the private security firms by replacing them with another incompetent and corrupt Government agency. Our adversaries are laughing while TSA bleeds our economy dry with this expensive and senseless abuse of taxpayers.

    Under Pistole, TSA screeners have become facto child molesters and sexual assailants. They have stated that pat downs involve direct contact with passenger’s penises, testicles, breasts and vaginas including those of children, acts meeting any reasonable definition of sexual assault. Despite the repeated claims that they are adopting sensible procedures for children, these abuses continue. Now they will have another mechanism to support them in their attack on the traveling public.

    Nothing less than the complete elimination of this agency is acceptable. Hopefully, those responsible for this criminal malfeasance, including Pistole, will be prosecuted by the next Administration.


  • Carrie Charney

    Yes, Israel uses “chat-downs” in a big way, but we travelers to and from the country are treated respectfully by intelligent, well-trained security personnel. That is a big difference between their system and ours. Their agents are not only intelligent, they earn a living wage.

  • Brooklyn

    If this were going to replace the pornoscanners entirely, it might be worth considering.  But adding yet another level of annoyance to air travel? No way. It’s hard to be nice to someone who, on his last shift, may have been groping a little boy or hassling someone because they have dark skin or an accent. If I didn’t give the TSA the silent treatment, I’d say far worse – cold scorn is about all we can get away with and now they want to take that from us too!

  • Phoenix Justice

    I have a friend who I travel with from time to time who has very severe OCD.  One of his “routines” involves putting on and taking off his shows at least 30 times.  I am always afraid TSA will single him out for a little extra questioning, which will activate any number of other OCD “routines”.  As Karen C mentioned, the current TSA agents don’t seem to be trained to deal with persons with OCD and such.

  • GO SOX

    I have been flying through boston, where most of the TSA agents have already been pleasant and chatty for years.  Usually its a comment about the game last night or something.  I have not noticed a difference either.

  • Eric

    Ummm, e-mail has not been around 40 years.

  • cjr001

     TSA agents aren’t really trained to deal with anybody or anything.

  • Sadie Cee

    How about those of us who suffer from hyperhidrosis?  How will this work for us?  Wil a medical certificate be accepted?

  • Sadie Cee

    Is the position description (including qualifications for the job) for Behavior Detection Officers (BDO) available to the public?  If so, perhaps this information could allay some fears and suspicions as to who these individuals are and will be.

  • http://oussamastake.blogspot.com/ Oussama

    I hope they are multilingual, it is going to be a great mess with international passengers who don’t know English or English is there second or third language. 

  • Mike in NC

    Name, Rank, Serial Number.

    That’s all the USC calls for.

    That’s all I’ll give them.

  • KaraJones

    This would be a great idea if we lived in Israel and had the quality of screeners that they have. But the TSA screeners are low-level morons with no psychology training. These are people who are power-hungry and get nasty with folks who simply forget that they have a 12 ounce bottle of sunblock in their bag. Judgement like that would lead to them pulling people out of the line for totally inappropriate reasons (some mentioned here already in other comments). 

  • Molly8061

    If it comes to a choice to a chat, vs an invasive patdown, or walking thru one of the potentially cancer causing  new x-ray machines, I’ll take the chat.

  • LarryB

    I’ve experienced the chat-down in Europe, mostly at AMS. While I think they’re reasonably well trained (something TSA agents probably never will be) I just can’t believe that they can get past the affect of passengers who are tired, massively jet lagged, worried about pressing family issues, or simply afraid to fly.

    I once had a 15 minute conversation with a guy at Schiphol because I was returning from a three day business trip to Turkey about a month after I finished another 3 week business trip that took me in and out of the Schengen zone (as in lots of close-together EU visa stamps in my passport.) My lack of a business card confused him. I simply forgot them at home, and since my meetings were internal it didn’t matter. I wound up showing him my work badge (from a huge, well-known company) and we would up discussing the transit pass sticker on the back. I was also getting anxious because the plane had fully boarded by the tome we finished. All I really wanted to do was get on the plane and get home.

    I imagine that I *could* have looked suspicious to him with all the entries and exits, and the fact that I had business class seats bought a week before the trip (corporate credit card / travel agency). Or maybe he just thought it was odd that an American stocked up on Dutch gin before heading home.

  • LarryB

    Yep, old people and poor people all have email. And if they don’t they can afford $9 a pop for FedEx to pay their electric bill.

    You miss the whole point of the Post Office – universal service.

  • Michael K

    The key is the training and skill of the BDO’s.  To do this well (a la the Israelis) would require lots of time and expense to attract, cultivate, and retain high caliber personnel.

    In principle, I think it’s a much better idea than random invasive pat downs, but I share other’s skepticism that the TSA will succeed to pull it off in a way that’s effective or compassionate.

  • cjr001

    I’m flying tonight. I’d rather not, but this trip was booked before the ‘enhanced groping’ was put into place.

    My airport only has the MMW scanners, and the new ‘gingerbread man’ online software has also now been installed, so some of my concerns are allayed.

    Obviously, this does not guarantee that I won’t get my penis measured by as TSA agent, but at least I know I won’t get that AND a backscatter scan.

    Having scouted my route home, those airports also only use MMW, but no idea on the software. Of course, TSA isn’t saying.

    If only I could get the time off from work to be able to drive to these places, rather than fly…

  • David

    Sounds like what you are engaging in is called, “Basic courtesy.”  Too bad that so many people today seem unable to engage with real people even to say, “Hello” (but I’m sure they’ve got GREAT farms in ‘Farmville’ and lots of ‘virtual’ friends)

    As for missing your flight, I doubt it — sounds like you’re smart enough to get to the airport early enough that a 10 minute hiccup won’t make you miss a flight.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sommer.gentry Sommer Gentry

    I have absolutely nothing to say to a person who takes money to sexually abuse children.  I can’t help but respond to all blueshirts with utter hatred and contempt.  These people are the lowest of the low, shooting dangerous radiation at pregnant women and grabbing the sex organs of strangers.  The TSA has no credibility left.  Actually, forget credibility, they have no decency or humanity left.  If these depraved criminals want us to speak to them in a civil tone, may I suggest they start by getting their filthy molesting hands out of our pants?  

    What does the TSA mean by calling this a “casual greeting”?  If I get a casual greeting from a stranger, I’m perfectly within my rights to ignore it, respond with hostility, or leave the area.  What the TSA is doing is an interrogation, with punitive actions taken against people who don’t or can’t comply.  Police officers have very firmly defined rules of engagement when interrogating people: they can’t detain us more than briefly without an articulable reason, they advise us of our right to remain silent.  Why do I have more rights when I’m under arrest than when the TSA is having it’s way with me? I will simply plead the fifth amendment to any TSA interrogator – oh, wait, I gave up my rights under the 5th amendment along with the 4th and 1st when I bought an airline ticket, right?  The TSA’s march of dirty jackboots over the entire Bill of Rights continues apace.

  • DChamp56

    Years about 8 years ago, my wife and I were flying home from Paris. The security agent asked us if we were there on vacation, how we enjoyed it, where’d we go (with a smile on his face, he acted like a friend wanting to know how our trip was). It was a great conversation, but it wasn’t till after I got on the plane, that I realized it was a modified form of chat-down. Even today, my wife and I talk about what a pleasant experience it was, mainly because this agent made us feel like friends, not like the enemy.
    As always, it’s not necessarily what you do, but how you do it.

  • http://twitter.com/DChamp DChamp

    About 8 years ago, my wife and I were flying home from Paris. The security agent asked us if we were there on vacation, how we enjoyed it, where’d we go (with a smile on his face, he acted like a friend wanting to know how our trip was), what gifts/souvenirs were we bringing home.. etc. It was a great conversation, but it wasn’t till after I got on the plane, that I realized it was a modified form of chat-down. Even today, my wife and I talk about what a pleasant experience it was, mainly because this agent made us feel like friends, not like the enemy.As always, it’s not necessarily what you do, but how you do it.

  • ButMadNNW

    Right direction, wrong implementation.

  • jennj99738

    “The difference with the Israeli program is that they talk to you before
    you get to the airport….as you are driving up to the terminal. Not as
    youre documents are being checked and youre being cleared through a
    security checkpoint.”

    Not altogether true.  At Tel Aviv, my mother and I were questioned thoroughly as our baggage was screened and our documents were verified.  I was pulled aside for more thorough examination because I had a mosaic piece in my bag that they must have thought could be an antiquity.  The airport has different stations where passengers are directed for further questioning and bag inspection.  However, it was never offensive and was done by military personnel, something that could not be effectively done here. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/sommer.gentry Sommer Gentry

    It’s not a choice.  They’ll still be taking naked pictures of children and fondling people’s genitalia whenever they get the urge. They’re just adding a psychological dimension to the already Kafka-esque nightmare.

  • Lisa Simeone

    4 days in the classroom and 24 hours of on-the-job training.  Yeah, that’ll work.

  • Lisa Simeone

    They get 4 days in the classroom and 24 hours of on-the-job training.  Then suddenly they’re Behavior Detection “Officers” (they, like all TSA agents, have no law enforcement authority).  May as well sprinkle fairy dust and declare them qualified.

  • Lisa Simeone

    People keep touting Israeli methods as some sort of panacea.  But though Israel has eliminated terrorism on planes, they’ve learned to accept it in other venues — buses, cafes, marketplaces. Bombs still go off there.

    There is no such thing as 100% security, anywhere.  The belief of so many Americans that there is, is why they’re willing to bend over and spread ’em every time an authority figure tells them to.  They cherish the fantasy of security more than the reality of life.  Life entails risk.

    The Israelis also rely heavily on racial and ethnic profiling.  If you’re with an American tour group, for example, you’ll be ushered quickly through.  If you’re the “wrong” racial or ethnic type, you’ll get a thorough going-over. And if you’re a peace activist — forget it; you’ll be strip-searched in a back room.  Just ask Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sommer.gentry Sommer Gentry

    “Basic courtesy” is something earned by acting like a human being.  No monster who earns a living molesting children, bullying frightened travelers into sexual contact, and threatening those using their free speech rights to object deserves any level of basic courtesy.  These TSA criminals deserve jail time.  I don’t offer basic courtesy to sex offenders, regardless of whether I’m in an airport.  Glad to see you’re fine chatting up Chester the Molester, but some of us have standards.

  • Sadie Cee

    Please say it isn’t so!  If this is to be taken seriously, I would have expected that the minimal requirement would be an undergraduate degree with courses in Psychology, Sociology, etc.!  How can 5 days of training possibly qualify anyone to take on these responsibilities?

  • Lisa Simeone

    “Nothing will ever guarantee expedited screening. Passengers will always be subject to random, unpredictable measures.” -John Pistole

  • Merryl Gross

    I’m glad that the TSA is finally considering a solution that doesn’t involve spending millions on machinery of limited usefulness and unknown safety.

    I went thru terminal E security in Boston on August 16th.  I can’t tell you if I had one of these “new” interviews; the agent asked me “How are you?” (politely and with eye contact!) and I replied with “I’m not awake yet.”  Apparently at 6am, that was a good enough answer and she let me pass on.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Larry-Pearson/100003736331864 Larry Pearson

    I don’t want to talk with TSA, CBP, DHS, or any other police person for any reason period. I will no longer answer any of their questions about anything!!!I feel I have the right, as do all other Americans Not to talk to these criminals (TSA, DHS, CBP) agents unless I have a lawyer present. They are all lying Sacks of $HI% as people. They are dishonest, and communists. They are all bad people. I just want them to stay away from me.