Airport screeners may focus on passenger behaviour

Canadian Press
Updated: Sun. Sep. 3 2006 11:26 PM ET

OTTAWA — How travellers behave at the airport -- not simply the items in their tote bags -- could soon be a focus of Canada's air security screeners.

The federal agency that searches airline passengers and carry-on luggage for potentially dangerous articles is now looking at scrutinizing people's actions more closely.

The Canadian Air Transport Security Authority sees the technique, known as behavioural pattern recognition, as another layer of protection against would-be terrorists.

"It's something that we're keeping very close tabs on, and it is certainly of interest to us," said CATSA spokeswoman Renee Fairweather.

The initiative would involve training airport screeners to pick up on cues -- from facial expressions to vocal patterns -- that might indicate a person has something to hide.

That could lead to the traveller being pulled aside for more detailed questioning.

The air authority signalled its plans to explore behavioural assessment in a position paper submitted recently to a panel reviewing the agency's mandate.

"It is no longer sufficient to only screen for objects," the CATSA paper says.

"Screening people, observing behaviour, how they answer questions and how they react at the screening line could potentially be very good indicators of whether or not a person poses a security risk."

The technique, pioneered in Israel, has been adopted by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration at about a dozen American airports, with plans to expand the program.

Those who have helped develop the assessment tool say much depends on the cues screeners are seeking out and the follow-up questions asked of people taken aside.

Some critics, however, say behavioural monitoring is a poor use of scarce security resources.

"What is normal behaviour in an airport? Who determines what's normal?" asked Roch Tasse of the Ottawa-based International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group.

"We know very well that a lot of people in airports are stressed and afraid just because they're afraid of flying. And their behaviour might appear weird to some security people."

In a multicultural country like Canada, screeners would have to be extremely knowledgeable about ethnic differences, Tasse contends.

"The way an Italian or French-Canadian moves their hands around when they talk may not be the same way an anglophone from Britain moves," he said.

"The way a certain person from Africa looks, or not, into your eyes can be extremely cultural."

University of Ottawa criminologist Wade Deisman said he's not aware of any research to show behavioural assessment works.

He notes security officials who monitor closed-circuit TV cameras have zeroed in on people who perch their baseball cap backwards or wear unusually baggy clothes.

"We haven't seen any evidence that human beings are any good at operating outside of the usual stereotypical boxes," said Deisman, director of the university's national security working group.

Fairweather cautioned the behavioural assessment technique would provide simply one indicator someone may pose a risk.

"It doesn't mean that the minute you identify an unusual behaviour, that person doesn't fly," she said.

"You just take additional measures to screen out that person as a potential threat. So it's one step of many in the aviation security system."

The air screening agency's submissions to the federal review panel indicate behavioural pattern recognition is one of several ideas under consideration to improve security.

Others include:

  • Ensuring new planes are equipped with systems that can automatically take control of a hijacked aircraft that strays off course and return it safely home.
  • A bomb technician network, to assist screeners, comprising police explosive-detection units at major airports and local police departments.

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