Call: (646) 470-7885

Keep Airport Security Active

I recently spent several hours in a major California airport. Unfortunately, my time spent in the airport was for naught, since my flight was cancelled. However, in spite of my traveling woes, I was able to reflect a bit on airport security. I can’t say that I am a very frequent traveler, but I’ve probably flown through U.S. airports well over one hundred times. I’ve also had the opportunity to fly internationally several times as well. This hardly puts me in a frequent flyer category, but I’ve spent my fair share of time in airports and probably have the same frustrations as most other travelers with airport security personnel, procedures, airlines, small seats, bad food, etc.

What I want to reflect on now is the use of security personnel in U.S. airports. Here’s a comparative anecdote. In my more than one hundred trips through U.S. airports, outside of the usual procedures at security checkpoints, I’ve never once been approached or engaged by an airport security agent. I’ve never been questioned, spoken to, or greeted. In contrast, I’ve had a significantly different experience flying out of Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. I’ve only traveled to Israel once, and so my experience is minimal. However, my experience at Ben Gurion is also significantly different than my hundreds of experiences in U.S. airports. I traveled to Israel to participate in an archaeological excavation and to tour. After five weeks of excavating, I flew my wife out to tour the country. We spent a week visiting historic sites, eating great food, and meeting splendid people. However, because our trips were purchased at different times, we had different flights out of the country. My wife flew back to the U.S. one day before I did. I didn’t just drop my wife off at the airport. I parked the rental car, walked in with her, and waited as she made it through the ticketing and baggage check procedures. As she was going through the line, I sat on a bench facing toward the entrance and exit doors of the airport, looking out at the sky and minding my own business. In the, perhaps, twenty minutes that I sat on that bench, I was approached by plain clothes security agents at two different times. Each of these agents asked me a series of questions. Questions such as: What are you doing sitting by yourself? Why don’t you have any bags? When are you flying out? Who are you waiting for? What are you doing in Israel?

The next day, when I flew out of Israel, I was asked a very similar set of questions by uniformed agent checking my passport prior to even checking my baggage. What did I do in Israel? Who was I with? Why wasn’t I with them any longer? Etc.

According to the Ben Gurion website, in 2013, more than 13 million international passengers flew through the airport on almost 97,000 flights. The airport also served more than 760,000 domestic passengers on nearly 8,000 flights. Many U.S. airports are much busier than Ben Gurion. In 2012, the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport boarded more than 45 million passengers. That’s more than three times the number of passengers that fly out of Ben Gurion. When stacked up against U.S. airports, Ben Gurion would be the twentieth busiest airport.

There can be no doubt that in many ways the security personnel at the busiest U.S. airports have a much more difficult job than do Ben Gurion airport security agents. Of course, there are many socio-political, cultural, and threat-security factors that make any comparison difficult. But in simple terms of number of passengers, U.S. airports have their work cut out for them. This means that making a comparison between the security procedures and practices at Ben Gurion and those at U.S. airports may be somewhat unfair. What works at Ben Gurion may not work in U.S. airports. The way security agents are employed at Ben Gurion may not be possible to the same extent at many U.S. airports. But then again, it may be possible.

Nevertheless, if 19 or so airports are busier than Ben Gurion, this means that hundreds of U.S. airports are comparatively busy or less busy. This means that hundreds of airports can employ the same procedures and practices. The busier airports may also be able to adapt the Israeli style of security in ways that work for them.

To keep this post short, I’ll focus on one way that U.S. airports can learn from Ben Gurion.

We can generally divide security measures into two groups: active and passive. Active security measures are, well, active. They consist of those measures that employ personnel (or security equipment) to actively seek out threats with the intention of taking the initiative and denying the threat the ability to operate effectively. Passive security measures consist of “measures taken to reduce the probability of and to minimize the effects of damage caused by hostile action without the intention of taking the initiative” (Joint Publication 1-02, p. 201). Passive security measures don’t take the initiative. They are generally stationary. They are encountered by the threat when the threat takes the initiative.

Security personnel are active forms of security, not passive. What Ben Gurion security does well is employs security agents in active ways. Both plain clothed and uniformed personnel actively seek out interactions with people in the airport to assess whether or not certain individuals are threats. Of course, much more goes into engaging potential threats than talking and questioning. Ben Gurion security agents are trained in behavioral analysis and are able to determine whether an individual is a potential threat by reading body language, autonomic cues, and by assessing various other indicators. They are also trained in effective questioning. They also, almost all, have military training and experience. Nevertheless, simply employing security agents in an active way goes a long way to inhibiting people from doing bad things at Ben Gurion airport.

From my experience, U.S. airport security personnel are employed in much more passive ways. Of course, much more goes on “behind the scenes” than travelers are aware of. However, I’ve never been approached, questioned, or engaged by any U.S. security personnel outside of the security screening process at the security checkpoint. Although I see “patrols” of uniformed security personnel and law enforcement agents walking around the airport, they don’t engage anyone, question anyone, or talk to anyone unless the person is acting in some overtly unusual manner. Mostly, these patrols simply walk around like tough guys. U.S. forces tried this in Afghanistan and Iraq with little success. Much more success was had when U.S. military patrols softened up (from the perspective of demeanor) and actually engaged the local populace.

U.S. airport security can learn from Ben Gurion by employing security personnel in active ways, both plain clothed and uniformed agents. Security agents must walk the airport, talk to travelers, question them, assess them, and engage them. They must also be trained in behavioral analysis and questioning techniques. These conversations are not casual, but direct questionings to assess what people are doing, who they are with, where they are going, etc. Ultimately, the security agent considers both the explicit answers and body language to determine a person’s intentions. For the vast majority of travelers, these conversations will reveal nothing. The vast majority of travelers are simply trying to get to their destination with as few problems as possible. However, these types of interactions will go a long way to inhibiting and catching the few terrorists or criminals that try to get through airport security and do bad things.

Waiting for people to approach security checkpoints, checking their name against a list, taking a two-second look at them, watching them from behind a desk through a security camera system, scanning them with x-ray and other imaging technology—these are all passive forms of security. No initiative is involved.

For U.S. security to be effective, it must be active. After a recent shooting at a U.S. airport, I heard a high-profile law enforcement agent state: “We can’t do anything about these types of attacks, all we can do is respond.” I think he’s wrong. Be active. Be left of bang.



  • Hi Jason,

    TSA does employ a program that is very similar to your recommendation. The program is called Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT). The specific officers who are trained in the techniques are called Behavioral Detection Officers (BDO). I’m not intimately familiar with the details of the program, so I’m unsure if the officers are uniformed or not (along with many other details). I do know that Dr. Paul Ekman helped develop the program and the program came under heavy scrutiny about the legitimacy of behavioral analysis in the use of counter-terrorism.

    Like you, I have traveled quite a bit within and outside the CONUS and have never had an encounter like you described in Israel. I agree that behavioral analysis, if trained and conducted properly, would greatly help in the detection of criminal activity in our airports. However, I have an feeling that is not the case for this TSA program.

    • Jason Riley

      Hi Christopher,

      Thank you for the response. We always appreciate readers providing their perspectives and experiences to discussions on the blog.

      I am familiar with the SPOT program as well as the scrutiny it has encountered. As you can tell from my post, I am mainly speaking from my own experiences flying here in the US and abroad. As I also conceded in the post, I’m sure there is a lot more going on behind the scenes in US airports than we know (or, at least, I sure hope there is). However, I think my point about active vs. passive security still stands. Let me put it in a different way. Security agents who are trained in behavioral analysis can still fall victim to serving as passive security measures. As most airport travelers can tell, and as I observe every time that I fly, TSA and other security agents (mostly uniformed agents) mainly position themselves at security checkpoints and wait for people to come to them. This is a passive form of security. A passive form of security is one in which the security agent or device does not take the initiative. Now, it is inevitable that some security agents function as passive measures–this is simply the reality of security checkpoints. However, a good defense requires a good offense; and passive security measure require active security measures. My main recommendation is that in addition to security agents at checkpoints, airports would do well (read: would be more secure) to employ both uniformed and plain-clothed security agents who actively patrol airports AND who take the initiative to engage people present in the airport. This takes training in both behavioral awareness and some form of questioning.

      • Hi Jason,

        Thank you for the clarification. I hope my post didn’t come across as disputing your analysis. I agree 100% that being proactive is a must in security. My point, which wasn’t well stated, was that TSA seems to use passive security measures even with the SPOT program. I have never been questioned either by TSA other than at checkpoints. Like you said, hopefully more is going on behind the scenes.

        As far as the SPOT program, I feel that it is flawed. From my research, which I must admit is minimal, the SPOT program is mostly trained in micro-expressions. In my opinion, in order for a program such as SPOT to be effect it is more important to be focused on 1) understanding what is the normal in that specific environment 2) behavioral cues (effects from the survival stress response, body language, etc.), not micro-expressions alone. What are your thoughts on the SPOT program?

  • Patrick Van Horne

    I hear a lot of complaints about the TSA, and depending on my mood the day that I’m flying, some of those are probably from me. I’ve written before about some of the critiques that I’ve heard about the TSA and the SPOT program and my thoughts on whether or not they are justified. If you’re interested in reading that, you can find it here:

    I think that there are two things to consider when debating the SPOT program or looking for ways to improve it. The first is the goal of the SPOT program and the second is the method or techniques they use to accomplish that goal. When it comes to the goal of the SPOT program, I love that they want to use behavior to proactively recognize threats. While there are pros and cons to using behavior, since it is part of a larger security plan, those shortfalls can be compensated for and the strengths can be capitalized on, resulting in an overall increase in the security provided at our airports. While looking back on the post that I linked to above, I think that most of my defense for the current program is based on the overall goals for it and understanding what reasonable expectations look like for a behavior detection program.

    Now, when it comes to the method and techniques – I think there is a lot of room for discussion about how we go about implementing a behavioral approach to threat recognition and actually go about stopping criminals. While I haven’t gone through the SPOT training, I’ve had the opportunity to talk with many professionals who’ve gone through the program and who have also come through our training courses as well. From those conversations, while there might be some details that I am unaware of, I have been able to get what I feel is a pretty good grasp on the concepts taught in the SPOT program. With that as context, to finally get to your actual question, here are my thoughts:

    1. A focus on micro-expressions creates gaps in security.

    I agree with you that micro-expressions alone aren’t enough. My opinion is that it is impossible to look at a line of people waiting to get past security and have an expectation that a TSA agent is going to identify a micro-expression. To think that a human can look at a line of 50 people and recognize a facial expression that flashes across the face at 1/25th of second isn’t realistic. If that is the standard, we are setting up the behavior detection officers (BDOs) for failure. Micro-expressions are better employed in interview settings where you have the ability to look at the same person for an extended time and see how they respond to different questions. Would they help a screener once in an interview is being conducted? Yes, but that is further into the process and there still needs to be the ability to read behavior to determine who needs to be talked to in the first place.

    My opinion, which led to the creation of the Tactical Analysis program, is that facial expressions are not enough and the behaviors displayed on the rest of the body are more reliable because they are present all the time. When searching for a micro-expression, there is the chance that a BDO learning to look for these cues might not see one. Micro-expressions are only present when someone is trying to mask an emotion with another one, so what happens if no one is concealing the way they feel? What happens if a new officer doesn’t observe a micro because they are trying to look at too many people? Eventually the brain will naturally de-prioritize that observation and stop searching for it.

    In contrast, the four clusters of behavior that we teach our students (dominant, submissive, uncomfortable, comfortable) are always present. Everyone is always displaying one of them, so there is always something tangible and concrete for an officer to observe. The clusters can be observed from up close and from a distance, whereas micro-expressions aren’t able to be confidently assessed when you are, lets say, 50 feet away from the person. The clusters can be assessed regardless of which way the person is facing, whereas micro-expressions become worthless if the person isn’t facing in the direction of the officer. These situations, if not compensated for, create gaps in the security system because it leaves observations “on the table” and doesn’t provide a BDO with all of the information about a person that is being displayed through non-verbal communication.

    2. The baseline

    Now, identifying the clusters are only become important when compared to the context of what is happening around it – the baseline. And as you mentioned in your comment, that should be a core component to the SPOT program, which I don’t believe is currently the case. Inside of an airport, you could reasonably expect to see all four clusters being displayed as the baseline in the different sections of the building. The baseline for a security line is not the same as it is for the baggage claim, which is different than the baseline for the ticketing/check-in area. Without teaching the BDO’s how to establish this baseline, you end up teaching them “smoking gun” indicators to look for, which in my opinion creates more gaps by only creating the perception of safety.

    While other behavior detection and assessment programs usually discuss the need for the baseline, as anomalous behavior only becomes recognizable when compared to that initial point of reference, many don’t teach students a process to go about establishing that baseline the same way, each and every time, to ensure completeness of the process. This is why, again, I believe there are some gaps that can be filled in the SPOT program.

    3. It isn’t about detecting deception.

    In my opinion, the current focus on deception detection is flawed and is my biggest issue with the SPOT program. For one, there is a lot of contradictory research about how capable people become at identifying liars, even with training. But since this article relates to airport security, I ask the question, does recognizing deceit makes us anymore safe? Is identifying passengers who are lying the most important thing the TSA should be focused on, or should the goal of the program to be recognizing people who have violent intent?

    The behavioral analysis approach that we teach and the behavior detection concepts that are currently in use by the TSA are just two different methods both seeking to accomplish the same goal – how can we reduce the threats the aviation industry is exposed to. Personally, I enjoy and welcome debate about this because I think that it is ultimately in the best interest of the people we are seeking to protect with the programs – the American public and those traveling through our country. Hopefully, by looking at the issues objectively, we can find the right components to the overall system, understand where and how behaviors fit into the larger security process and deliver that capability in a way that provides the full benefit of behavioral analysis and assessment at a cost that is reasonable to the tax payers funding the program.

    Chris – sorry for the long winded answer, but I appreciate your comment and questions to spark the conversation.

  • Patrick,

    I appreciate your thorough explanation. Thank you for taking the time to write it up. I can see that there is a lot that we agree on when it comes to behavioral analysis. Once I finish exploring the site, I’m sure I’ll have more questions and comments for both you and Jason. Thanks again!

Join The Conversation Here