Friday, April 4, 2008

Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT)

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has started deploying airport behavior screeners as part of the SPOT program. The program made the news this week when SPOT screeners arrested an Army veteran in Orlando who had checked luggage containing pipe-bomb making materials. The program has been in operation for four years but most of the arrests are for individuals carrying fake IDs.

SPOT is shrouded in secrecy and even the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) seems to have problems obtaining details about the program. Therefore, it is hard to make any conclusions about the program other than what has appeared in the press. From what little that has been published, it appears SPOT is analogous to a college football coaching waiting to figure out his opponent’s tactics until during the game. Imagine if a college football coach failed to review game film trying to develop ways to counter his opponent’s strategy. SPOT appears to rely on the “game-day” principle hoping to learn enough about a passenger at the airport getting ready to board a flight to determine if they pose a threat.

SPOT appears to rely heavily on behaviors that could easily misinterpreted even by the most highly trained officer. SPOT could very easily run afoul of the ACLU the minute the wrong passenger is subjected to additional screenings and delays. SPOT sounds like another form of profiling which although extremely useful, ultimately failed in the court of public support.

The reliance on behaviors by SPOT screeners also seems to present an opportunity for terrorists to learn which behaviors trigger additional screening and to avoid them in the future. TSA officials refuse to discuss the trigger behaviors for obvious reasons but this will most likely create backlash in public opinion regarding the agency and the program. TSA agents are legally allowed to thoroughly search someone trying to board a plane and interrogate them at length, even if there is no evidence they have broken any law. Air travelers are already frustrated with higher ticket prices and long check-in lines. The potential for an innocent passenger to exhibit behaviors that trigger additional screening just seems like a disaster waiting to happen.

There are obvious behaviors people exhibit when they are trying to hide something so SPOT is not without merit. But trying to catch someone at the airport does open the possibility of missing the one passenger that gets through. What hopefully is happening behind the scenes is information sharing amongst the various federal, state and local law enforcement agencies that may have valuable intelligence and the TSA. SPOT effectiveness would be assured if law enforcement and intelligence agencies were providing assessments to TSA (and for all we know they are, it is just unknown due to the secrecy of TSA regarding this program).

In the end, it appears the SPOT program will add another way of insuring the safety of our passengers and aircrews. The TSA needs to remember though that it is fighting a two-pronged war. The first is against potential terrorists, the other is public opinion that is growing increasingly tired of the hassles associated with air travel.

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