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    Washington Post: ‘Behavior detection’ officers covertly watch travelers’ conduct

    The Washington Post reports on a “behavior detection” program being conducted by the Transportation Security Administration. (Privacy and civil liberty questions about the program are after the jump.)

    To identify potentially dangerous individuals, the Transportation Security Administration has stationed specially trained behavior-detection officers at 161 U.S. airports. The officers may be positioned anywhere, from the parking garage to the gate, trying to spot passengers who show an unusual level of nervousness or stress. […]

    Under the program, which started in Boston in 2003, a suspicious passenger might be given a secondary security screening or referred to police; detection officers do not have arrest powers.

    Last year, officers nationwide required 98,805 passengers to undergo additional screenings. Police questioned 9,854 of them and arrested 813.

    I have written before about behavior detection programs and my privacy and civil liberty questions remain open. There are any number of innocent reasons why an individual would be nervous or agitated at an airport. What would the error rate of this technology be? How many false positives leading to the harassment of innocent people and the diversion of investigators’ attention and resources from actual criminals?

    The behavior detection agents are not psychological experts. “These jobs do not require a background in behavior analysis, but are chosen based on their intelligence, maturity and ability to work with people, the TSA said.” Training is minimal. “Officers undergo four days of behavior training, which includes training to spot suicide terrorists, and then receive 24 hours of on-the-job preparation,” reports the Washington Post.

    You can learn more by watching the video of the panel discussion that I moderated at Computers, Freedom and Privacy on airport behavior detection programs, which included Peter Pietra, TSA Privacy Chief.

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