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Smile! The TSA is Studying Your Facial Tics

terminal a at logan airport

Miffed that airport security full-body scans can feel so cold and impersonal? Don’t worry—your TSA officer may soon want to chat you up before they pat you down.

For the next 60 days or so, select TSA agents at Boston’s Logan Airport, trained to detect behavior that may indicate that a passenger is nervous about more than turbulence, are using their powers of observation to change the screening process.

During a standard security screening, the agents, called Behavior Detection Officers, will  engage passengers in casual conversation while observing facial expressions and body language for involuntary signs of fear, tension, or deception that are outside the norm for typical airport behaviors.

The pilot program, which will run two months, is part of an ongoing TSA initiative called the Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT).  At other airports utilizing SPOT,  only those travelers determined to be suspicious are subject to questioning; the current study at Logan will subject all people who pass through Terminal A’s security checkpoint to a series of questions. 

Boston.com reports that the effectiveness of the SPOT program has been questioned by the Government Accountability Office since the program was started in June 2003.  (While the TSA boasts that the behavioral observations of agents have led to almost 2,000 arrests over the years, none of them have been for terrorism-related crimes.)

In hindsight, those grainy videos of Mohamed Atta skulking through airport security in September 2001 seem like an clear-cut argument for observational screening, but critics are concerned that this type of screening will lead to racial or ethnic profiling.  The TSA says the nature of the current study, which asks the same questions of every traveler, should quell such fears.

Are you ready to be asked about the nature of your trip?  Will a little back-and-forth with a TSA agent make you feel better about airport security or not?

Ann Shields is a senior digital editor at Travel + Leisure.

Terminal A photo courtesy of Logan International Airport.

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