WASHINGTON, Oct. 3 (UPI) -- The Transportation Security Administration is studying a new screening system that looks for suspicious behavior rather than suspicious objects or people, the agency said Sunday.
"TSA is interested in pursuing a pilot program using behavior pattern recognition," spokesman Norm Brewer told United Press International.
He added that the agency had been in discussions with the Massachusetts Port Authority, which runs Logan Airport where a similar operation is in use.
Behavior pattern recognition is unlike the screening that the TSA currently performs at airport checkpoints, which involves looking for suspicious or threatening objects; and it is distinct from the so-called Secure Flight initiative that the agency plans to roll out next year, which will check passenger names against watch lists of known or suspected terrorists in the hope of finding suspicious people.
Instead, behavior recognition involves training screeners to look for suspicious conduct, such as furtiveness or undue anxiety.
"It's basically profiling, although people don't like to use that word," Steve Elson, a former U.S. aviation security official told UPI.
Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said he welcomed the move.
"I am pleased that TSA is going to follow Logan's lead by testing the effectiveness of a non racially-based profiling of suspicious behavior," he told UPI.
But he stressed that the technique -- although "an important step forward" -- was not a silver bullet. "A layered security strategy is needed," he said, adding that it ought also to include screening all cargo loaded on passenger planes.
Behavior recognition has been used by Israeli airport security for many years. "They are the best at it," Elson said, "mainly because of the quality of people they use to do the screening."
He said that the technique could most effectively be deployed at checkpoints or check-in counters, where passengers have to pause and can be questioned and their responses observed.
But passengers can also be observed to spot suspicious behavior anywhere in the airport by using closed circuit television.
"It's emphasizing the human element, which is always at the center of any effective security system," Elson said.
The problem, he said, was that the large numbers of people using airports made it difficult for limited numbers of security personnel to give enough attention to each passenger. "You need to cull the population you're looking at," he said.
One way to do that would be to ban anyone not flying from using the airport, he said. "There are two meeters and greeters for every passenger."
Time magazine, which reported the story in its latest edition, said that at Logan Airport, the operation had caught 20 people who were either in the country illegally or had outstanding warrants of one kind or another.
"Clearly they are spotting people who are behaving suspiciously," said Elson, but he added that trained experienced terrorists could still successfully "game the system."
"You can easily imagine what kinds of things (security personnel) are trained to look for," he said, "Sophisticated terrorists would just try and make sure they did not exhibit any of those behaviors."
Time said that the new plan would piloted for 60 days at two Northeastern airports, but Brewer said the TSA had not made a final decision on the operation or piloting it.
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