February 9, 2011
IF YOU’RE UNHAPPY with the choice between having the Transportation Security Administration “porno-scanning” you or touching your junk, this might also freak you out: The TSA is trying to read your mind. Since June 2003, it’s been monitoring travelers’ facial expressions and body language for signs that they might be hiding something. As of March 2010, the TSA’s Screening Passengers by Observational Techniques (SPOT) program had 3,000 “behavior detection officers” in more than 150 airports. Their job is to strike up conversations with passengers at security checkpoints, checking for what one TSA official describes as “behaviors that show you’re trying to get away with something you shouldn’t be doing.” People who don’t display “normal airport behavior” may be stopped for questioning.
SPOT is based largely on the work of Paul Ekman, a behavioral scientist who has spent his career identifying “microexpressions”–twitches lasting between one-fifteenth and one-twenty-fifth of a second that reveal intentionally concealed emotions. Ekman’s methods have been used by the animators ofToy Story and Shrek and celebrated by Malcolm Gladwell, and they inspired the Fox TV series Lie To Me, whose main character is a human lie detector who thrives on confrontations with psychopaths and murderers. That’s a far cry from Ekman himself, an unassuming 77-year-old who makes no claims of infallibility. “I’m never absolutely certain,” he says, sitting in his San Francisco loft. “I can’t tell you what triggers an emotion. I can only tell you to recognize an emotion even when someone doesn’t want you to recognize it.” Nonetheless, he says that had he been stationed at an airport security checkpoint on the morning of September 11, 2001, he probably could have plucked Mohamed Atta out of a crowd.
In the real world, the TSA’s behavior detection officers have yet to make such a dramatic catch. Of the 2 billion passengers who traveled through airports where the behavior-scanning program was deployed between 2004 and 2008, 152,000 were flagged for further examination. Of those, fewer than 1,110 were arrested. Most were undocumented aliens, had outstanding warrants, or were carrying fake documents or drugs.