Wednesday, September 12, 2007


Ever since I started at the Advocate I knew I'd have the chance to take on the TSA sooner or later. And that glorious day has finally arrived.

Face Crimes
Bradley airport may have behavior detection officers checking you out. Smile at the airport so they don't think you're a terrorist.

By Jennifer Abel

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Let's play "Name That Background Noise," where the Advocate lists the sounds of a given location and you guess where it is. Ready? Here goes: "Take off your jacket and shoes. I'm confiscating your shampoo because it's in a four-ounce bottle and any bottle bigger than three ounces is a terrorist threat. Seriously, that's our official policy."

If you guessed "an airport checkpoint staffed by the Transportation Security Administration," you win! For your prize, here's some useful advice (which the losers should also heed): next time you fly somewhere, schedule it for when you're in a good mood and can remain so even if TSA says they're taking your deodorant so nobody can hijack the plane with it.

The good mood's important because a bad one might attract attention from Behavior Detection Officers, TSA agents trained (more or less) to wander through airports looking for secret hidden facial expressions that indicate you're up to no good.

Seriously, that's their official duty. "There are physical and psychological signals that manifest themselves when an individual is ... feeling fear and anxiety [such as] trying to hide a fear of discovery," said Ann Davis, a TSA regional spokesperson in Boston.

TSA's Web site says the same thing with slightly different words, describing BDOs as people who go around "identifying potentially high-risk individuals based on involuntary physical and psychological reactions."

They're talking about something called "microexpressions," which supposedly make a person's hidden feelings visible, albeit briefly, to anyone who knows how to look. Paul Ekman, a professor emeritus of psychology at UC San Francisco, discovered the phenomenon nearly 40 years ago.

Early in his career, Ekman determined that certain facial expressions remain consistent across all societies. Though cultures disagree on some facial issues, like whether eye contact is respectful or rude, feelings like disgust, sadness, fear and their opposites look identical on faces all over the world. This implies a biological, rather than cultural, component. Ekman catalogued the myriad involuntary muscle movements that make these faces. Here's how they tie in to microexpressions: say you're feeling some intense emotion like anxiety. You want to hide this, and you're a good actor, so for the most part you're successful; everyone who sees your face thinks you're happy.

But at some point, you'll still make the muscle movements that form the "anxious" expression. Anxiety might only flash on your face for a fraction of a second, but it will appear.

Ekman discovered this during slow-motion studies of videotapes. In one famous example, he viewed a tape of a woman who'd suffered through a bout of severe depression, but insisted to her off-camera psychiatrist that she was feeling much better and not entertaining suicidal thoughts, so could she please have a weekend pass home?

The woman was lying but her doctor believed her. (Fortunately, she confessed the truth before leaving that weekend.) Ekman, while studying the tape, caught a look of utter desperation that distorted her features for only a few frames. Her microexpression told the truth where her macroexpression (and words) did not.

But Ekman, in a 2006 interview with Scientific American, cautioned that knowing what a person is feeling isn't the same as knowing what they're thinking. Identifying anxiety, for example, doesn't let you know "whether a person fears that I'm seeing through their lie or that I don't believe them when they're telling the truth." Or any of the other reasons they might feel anxious in an airport.

Nationwide, TSA hopes to have a total of 500 BDOs by 2008. Does Bradley International have one on staff? An airport spokesperson referred the question to local TSA administrator Daniel Lee, who sounded puzzled when he heard why the Advocate was calling. "I haven't had the media call before" to ask about BDOs, he said. But "there is a BDO at Bradley," though he had to check with his boss before discussing what the job entails.

Next morning he called back. "Did I say bee-DEE-oh? ... I meant bee-AY-oh. Bomb Appraisal Officer." TSA keeps a bomb guy at Bradley, Lee confirmed, but "with BDOs, we don't tell the public whether we do or do not for obvious reasons. If a terrorist knew what airports have BDOs, they'll avoid them."

Lee referred further questions higher up the command chain. "I can't give you any additional information ... if you have questions about BDOs, give Ann Davis a call."

Ann Davis, the TSA regional director in Boston, was friendly but not too informative. She spoke in generalities, and only confirmed specifics if the Advocate mentioned them first.

What does a BDO do? "The BDO is essentially a security officer trained in our SPOT program," Davis replied. That, like her earlier mention of involuntary "physical and psychological reactions," closely mirrors the wording on the TSA Web site, where a July 2006 press release about new career opportunities in the agency lists "Behavior Detection Officers who execute TSA's Screening Passengers by Observation Technique (SPOT) program."

Neither Davis nor the Web site mentioned the term "microexpressions," but Davis, when asked, admitted that's what all the psycho-physical wording alluded to.

But consider: Ekman's shown a remarkable success rate finding and interpreting microexpressions — when given unlimited time to study individual tapes. That's quite different from walking through a busy airport seeking microexpressions in the crowd.

"Well, I'm personally not trained in the techniques," Davis said when asked about that.

Also, BDOs are reputed to work in teams; if one detects a suspicious look, for example, he'll approach the person and try to start a conversation to glean more information. Considering how Americans are supposed to be always on alert in airports these days, it seems counterintuitive to quell suspicions of anxiety by sending a stranger to start up a chat.

Their training covers that possibility, Davis said reassuringly.

Ah, yes, the training. Ekman needed decades of experience and advanced education to achieve his microexpression proficiency. TSA agents, meanwhile, have been known to do things like confiscate a one-inch plastic gun from a child's GI Joe doll, apparently unaware that such toy weaponry is no actual threat. How do BDOs compare to the TSA rank and file?

"Behavior Detection Officers come from our security officer corps, and receive additional training," Davis said.

What credentials are needed to become a regular TSA security officer, then? And how much training to upgrade to the behavior detection ranks?

The minimum requirement to be a TSA security officer is "A GED or equivalent ... high school equivalency," Davis said. A BDO gets an additional "four days of classroom instruction ... and on-the-job training."

Dr. Michael Stevens did a lot more than that to become Director of Clinical Neuroscience at the Olin Neuropsychiatry Research Center in Hartford. He's also done much research on the issue of psychopaths, which is why we called him.

A psychopath in this case is loosely defined as someone who is sane, in that he's in touch with the same reality as the rest of us, but completely lacks any conscience or sense of empathy.

Such people also lack the emotions, like fear and anxiety, which BDOs are supposed to spot, but Davis assured us a BDO would still be able to spot one. "They're under stress," Davis said. "Again, the more someone tries to suppress that, the more some of it shows through."

Stevens disagrees. "A psychopath would not feel the emotions," that manifest themselves as microexpressions, he said.

But to be honest, the psychopath factor isn't much of an issue when dealing with terrorists of the 9/11 sort.

"The current crop of primarily religious terrorists are not psychopaths," says Robert Trestman, a professor of medicine and psychiatry at the University of Connecticut Health Center. However, if such terrorists "are comfortable in their belief they will not demonstrate the anxiety ... if they have come to terms with ... what they are doing, the anxiety you expect won't be there." They won't attract attention from the BDOs either.

So the TSA, implemented after the World Trade Center attacks to upset future terrorist plots, is hiring new agents who probably won't have much luck in stopping terrorism. Of what use are they, then? According to Davis, they've had success in standard law enforcement. "The program has resulted in a lot of arrests, ranging from illegal immigrants ... to individuals with drugs or large amounts of cash." They may not stop the next Bin Laden, but college kids with marijuana brownies had better watch out.

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Anonymous NoStar said...

You attitude sucks. Stay away from the airport.

10:18 AM  
Blogger Windypundit said...

They're looking for fear and anxiety at the airport? In the security lines? My God, do you think'll they'll find anybody like that?

What about boiling, pent-up, anti-authoritarian rage? If I have some of that at the security station, do you think they'll notice?


12:21 PM  
Blogger Anne O'Neimaus said...

"... If a terrorist knew what airports have BDOs, they'll avoid them."

Ex-Squeeze Me? Isn't the TSA's entire raison d’être to make terrorists "avoid" our airports?

If stating that an airport has a BDO (heck, state it has a thousand of 'em) is sufficient to protect it, then:

a) Why aren't we doing so?

b) Why are we paying for all this other nonsense?

This is right up there with the information that many known (or highly-suspected) terrorists are NOT on the "No-Fly List", because we don't want to tip them off that we are on to them. In other words, the TSA wants the known, high-profile terrorists to use our's just the John Smiths of the world they want to hassle!

2:37 PM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

Damn, Anne! I wish I'd thought of that "avoid" point when I wrote the story!

By the way, if anybody wants to comment on the original story in its original Web location, go right ahead! Ahem.

Especially the comment about how ideally, terrorists are suppsed to AVOID airports. DAMN, I wish I'd thought of that. Seriously. Crap.

2:43 PM  
Blogger Spot said...

It sounds likes the TSA is trying to imply (in a security though obscurity sort of way) that all airports might have some of these BDO trained officers, but they won't say which specific airport do or don't have them. (Presumably so the prospective terrorists focus on those "vulnerable" airports) Also, any airport that is known to be BDO deficient will probably also get a decrease in travelers (and revenues)... so there is some logic there.. I guess?

My take: TSA officers being trained to observe the people at an airport = good thing. This heavy promotion of a very specific (and IMHO) somewhat faddish technique = not so good.

Less "Security Theater", to me, is a good thing. More training is a good thing. I guess the question being asked, does this accomplish that?

7:01 AM  
Anonymous A Moose said...

By the way, if anybody wants to comment on the original story in its original Web location, go right ahead! Ahem.

You get paid based on the number of comments? Is this like the googlebots that if you reference it you lose it? Methinks if you combined your TSA story with the tearful Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader story, you'd end up with the provactive outfit story on the one who was excused for the extra short skirt.

Tearful cheerleaders in extra short skirts would have a threefold benefit. First, it would generate the aforementioned comments (including a number of nonverbal types which don't communicate well on the computer), secondly it would dramatically reduce muslim terrorists who aren't supposed to look at woman unless they're dressed in a hefty sack, and thirdly you'd have a whole bunch of male individuals at the airport in a state of high visual acuity.

Just a suggestion.

7:47 AM  
Blogger rhhardin said...

That brings up the old multi-purpose joke : they have a brain scanner that can tell what you're thinking, for airport security ; but it doesn't work on women.

My favorite reading of the joke is that its target is computer-intelligence types. (Artificial intelligence holds the record for longest time on the brink of promise, since the 1950s. No progress actually occurs, but a new generation of optimistic males arrives periodically to repopulate the effort. Paglia says it's an escape from women. Women is what they're trying to figure out.)

10:27 AM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

No, Moose, not paid by the comment, but it's always nice to see people responding to what I write. Every couple of days I'll do a Google blog search for my name, or the paper's name, or a couple of other search words, and I'm always glad to see that someone was interested enough in something I wrote to find it worth linking to and discussing. (Even when it's the no-byline humorous-filler stuff I write for the front of the paper.)

11:56 AM  
Anonymous A Moose said...

I'm always glad to see that someone was interested enough in something I wrote to find it worth linking to and discussing.

Just for record purposes (insert HTML tag for serious tone here) I do check the main site and do read your stuff, and pretty much nobody else's(end serious tone) and the cheerleader thing reminded me why it's pretty much nobody else's.

12:00 PM  
Blogger Anne O'Neimaus said...

Jennifer: I was (and am) going to post "publicly". I'm just (in my non-existent spare time) doing a little research to bolster some of my positions.


Moose: even if she doesn't get paid per comment, on-site comments are obvious and measurable evidence to her employers that somebody is reading her stuff.

More evidence = more job security = (hopefully) better pay & better assignments.

Besides, I think she mostly writes "from her heart", in that she is invested in these stories. She naturally wants to see a wider public discussion of these, and while Feral Genius is a fine 'Blog, it clearly isn't currently in the same league as a public forum as the comments page of even a small "periodical of record".

7:46 AM  
Blogger Anne O'Neimaus said...


I, the entity known as Anne O'Neimaus (in possession of the eMail address, hereby grant permission to Jennifer Abel to cross-post any of the non-personal comments I make on the "Ravings of a Feral Genius" Weblog to any other forum dealing with a related subject. In particular, this grants permission to repost my comments to various comment-pages in the Hartford Advocate's web-site, and to submit them to any sort of "letters to the editor" type forum for print publication.

8:30 AM  
Anonymous smartass sob said...

I certainly do hope the mere phone-sex goddess' ankle is better. ;-)

10:37 PM  
Anonymous mere dumbass sob said...

the mere phone-sex goddess'

That should have been mere phone-sex mortal's.

(Sigh) I can't seem to get anything right lately.

4:11 AM  
Anonymous mere dumbass sob said...

That should have been mere phone-sex mortal's.

Let me try once more:

phone-sex goddess'

I should have just left off the word "mere" and everything would have been fine. Anyway, I hope your ankle is better today.

5:29 AM  
Anonymous A Moose said...

Anyway, I hope your ankle is better today.

As sob slinks quietly back into the corner....barely surviving to snark another day....

10:21 AM  
Anonymous smartass sob said...

Hey, Jennifer - HAPPY BIRTHDAY !!!

3:28 AM  
Anonymous A Moose said... the new article a result of the accused being a blogger, or a redhead, or a female, or all three?

Makes you shake your head. My youngest just became a teenager today, I wonder, and worry for, what is in the future.

6:49 PM  
Anonymous A Moose said...

....while Feral Genius is a fine 'Blog, it clearly isn't currently in the same league as a public forum as the comments page of even a small "periodical of record".

Kinda depends on the value system of the reader, I'd guess.

6:50 PM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

Hey! I didn't notice they put the Doninger story up early. That case seriously frosts me. I'm pretty sure it will be overturned on appeal, though.

Thanks for the birthday greetings, Smartass. I've been spending the day working on a couple of stories that are proving to be complicated pains in the ass, so I hardly had time to go online today.

My ankle is better. Too bad I can't work it into the story about where I got it in the first place.

8:01 PM  
Anonymous Pac, in MIA said...

lets here some great ideas from you! if there's sre not so hot?

9:54 PM  
Anonymous Pac said...

Pac, in MIA said...
lets here some great ideas from you! if there's are not so hot?

9:58 PM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

Sure, PAC! How about tarot card readings? They won't work any better than the current setup, but at least we can have a little fun with it.

9:49 AM  
Blogger Marilyn said...

Obviously, you don't know how much training an officer has to go through. All TSA Officers and BDO's are constantly being trained throughout the year. Yes, Elkman studied the process of behavior detection for years, so that others like us could use his techniques and expound on them. That is what continual training is for. We have a mandatory amount of training that must be completed each month. So please find out the facts before making false statements. Blog that!!!

From a TSA Officer

12:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

TSA agents will bayonet you if they think that you are a journalist, every one of which are defined by the GOP as enemies of the state, except for Bill O'Reilly.

5:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I feel that it must be noted that those hired within TSA to become BDOs are few and far between. Compare the number of TSOs to the Behavior Detection Officers. TSOs who are picked to be BDOs are top-performing TSOs who have displayed the qualities necessary for the job.
The stereotypical TSOs who cast the cloud of negativity over the agency will most certainly NOT be hired into the behavior detection program. Stating that a GED is the only requirement to be a TSO has nothing to do with the BDO program. Some may only have a GED, while others may have far more than that.
I understand that you have negative feelings toward the agency as a whole, but your categorizing the BDO program with the general population of TSA security officers does not mean that such categorization is true. I'm sure you will find that any BDO is more intelligent and "with it" than you might be thinking.

12:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't any of you have something better to do than gripe about airport security? Maybe if you were more creative/successful/intelligent you would have more paid gigs giving lectures around the world or something else more useful than giving lectures in a tiny blog somewhere that people occassionally stumble upon...your increased time in airports would hopefully expand your knowledge of how hard MOST TSO's (and almost ALL BDO's) work at protecting YOU... they aren't getting on the plane, they're making sure it's safe for you and their families and friends to fly.

4:33 AM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

Why do the anonymous trolls always wait until a post is over two years old to comment on it? Is it that they fear the honest debate a current thread will inspire?

6:36 AM  
Blogger Edward said...

Some people would wish that TSA/BDO haters one day sit next to a terrorist that managed to pass security and hacks their heads off with a plastic knife. The realistic situation here is that security measures are very important, for if security was not present at any airport, how many hijacks would have happened since 9/11. TSO's are in the greatest perceentage college grads and many are post grads. Not every TSO is a HS grad only. Thinking that is very ignorant. Its like saying TSA doesn hire college grads because it only prefers HS grads. Also, you would be suprised how sharp a High School Graduate can really be. A BDO has to compete with a lot of Officers. Sometimes One gets picked out of 200. May your flight be safe TSA haters.

12:43 PM  
Blogger Jennifer Abel said...

Not every TSO is a HS grad only.

True; some of them are high school dropouts.

for if security was not present at any airport, how many hijacks would have happened since 9/11.

TSA has yet to catch a single terrorist.

The realistic situation here is that security measures are very important

But what TSA does is not "security." It's obedience training. And I find it quite amusing that you chose to post such comments today, April 23, 2011. That's what TSA apologists are reduced to -- trolling the comment threads of four-year-old blog posts.

1:55 PM  
Blogger Jennifer Abel said...

Also, Edward, after doing a search of your IP address, it came up flagged on "Project Honey Pot." Direct quote: "The Project Honey Pot system has detected behavior from the IP address consistent with that of a mail server." Apparently, other messages sent from your IP address include "Best penis enlargement add 3" today" and "Buy Ambien online."

2:00 PM  
Blogger Chip and Andy said...

Well, my family crest bears the inscription Sero Sed Serio which translates loosely to Better Late than Never.

So.... on this late day on this older discussion, I wish to offer a large and heartfelt Bravo to you. This particular post made me laugh, smile, and most importantly it made me think.

Thank you. Please keep writing. Please help us to shut down the TSA and then DHS.

11:58 AM  

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