standard ‘Risk-based’ airport security

Anyone who has been through airport security in the US before and after 11 September 2001 knows how it has transformed politically, socially and technologically.  Other countries, especially the UK, have fallen suit using similar scanning and surveillance technologies in large international airports such as Heathrow.  But the majority of passengers are ‘low risk’ meaning that they are unlikely to commit an act of terrorism either at the airport or when airborne.  Yet they are still often times forced to submit to procedures that are built upon the premise that they could be a terrorist or if not a terrorist then a potential threat or disruption to airport security, if not national security.  This is problematic for a number of reasons, especially considering the resources invested into securing airports from potentially anyone distracts from the ‘real terrorists’, whoever they may be.  In response to this conundrum, the TSA in the US is piloting ‘risk-based’ approaches to enhance airport security.  While avoiding the obvious non-culprits such as children, people over 75 and those serving in the armed forces, the TSA plans to depend more on techniques that monitor behaviour and implement ways to ‘pre-check’ passengers such as biometric verification and behaviour monitoring techniques.

Behaviour Detection Officers (or BDOs for short) with the TSA have undergone training to identify risk ‘anomalies’ or suspicious passengers at security checkpoints.  I recall when a body scanner picked up such an ‘anomaly’ in a previous post.  I suspect that BDOs are often not hard to pick out from the usual TSA crowd as they are the first to ask how you are doing and greet you with a smile.  I remember this happened to me once in Detroit when I watched an officer walk up and down the queue greeting people face to face while taking extra notice of people’s expressions.  At first, I was almost alarmed as most TSA officers normally express little if any emotion.  However, after watching the officer give the same greeting to over six different people as if it were casual, I knew something was up.  Most people in Detroit don’t do this let alone an employee of the federal government working for national security.  But these techniques aren’t limited to the US.

Passing through Schiphol airport in the Netherlands I was confronted by a security officer who clearly saw that I was not in a good mood and based on my rather sour demeanour asked me to step out of the queue for a series of questions, most of which were used to sum up who I was, where I’d been and why.  The whole time the officer attempted to maintain eye contact making me wonder if somehow she thought an explosive device could be attached to my retinas.  After providing five forms of identification I was free to go through a body scanner with other passengers and there it ended.

Now obviously the two above examples are anecdotal, I didn’t go through this routine enough to develop any thorough social scientific investigation of how behaviour monitoring techniques work, but it did get me thinking that I could have easily passed through security without any problems regardless of my intentions.  It’s a bit like seeing the people you never want to meet but have to in order to get through the day and to avoid any conflict you smile and nod — you act.  So to avoid being considered an anomaly at airports in some cases being yourself is not an option, especially if you’re susceptible to moodiness while contained within a large commercialised shopping mall environment filled with tens to hundreds of thousands of people talking, crying, whining, laughing, drinking, eating, coughing, sneezing and yelling while ignoring your plight despite the fact you’re stuck in this mess together.

Why is broad screening favoured over techniques based on intelligence?  This is a difficult question to answer.  The business of security in itself is an enigma wrapped in a riddle, the more questions you ask the more questions you get likely leaving you more confused and frustrated than before.  The fact that security is a private business should already set off warning sirens (no pun intended) because the business of security is not the same as the security of a nation or an individual, rather it is the business of making sure that the security techniques in place are under your control.  Treating everyone as a high security threat may be the most costly as scientists studying risk-based passenger screening have commented, but once private systems are used to securitise national borders, the most intelligent system isn’t necessarily needed, nor desirable even if it should be.  Developing a security system based on relative risk is likely the future, but only until there is a large demand for one driven by markets.

Biometric systems such as those used in the UK are especially attractive to governments because they can be used to track high-risk passengers.  The biometric ID company CLEAR has tested biometric verification at Denver and Orlando International airports, whether this will be commonplace in the US in the future is yet to be determined.  CLEAR biometric identity cards have recently been approved for use at San Francisco International Airport.  The UK already has a substantial biometric ID programme in place for visa holders.

In the case of the TSA, ‘pre-check’ approaches might work, but what is meant by ‘expedited screening’ isn’t defined clearly and more publicly available information is needed.  If a more risk-based approach is used will passengers be expected to provide more information about themselves for authorities to determine how much of a risk they actually are?  Maybe, but the next time I board a flight bound for a major US international airport I’ll be sure to brush up on my low-risk persona, you never know who might be monitoring you.

Further Reading

Risk-Based Passenger Screening Could Make Air Travel Safer. Science Daily

US Biometric ID cards coming soon. Disinfo

TSA Pre✓™ – The Next Step In Our Risk-Based Approach To Further Enhance Airport Security. TSA Blog

TSA to expand risk-based screening program. MSNBC

Risk and security in the US after 9/11. IHRR Blog

The new wave of airport security. IHRR Blog


  1. TSA is security theater and a jobs program for unemployable misfits. After sixty billion dollars over eight years they can’t cite one success. In two separate GAO tests in 2011, TSA failed to detect weapons 70% of the time while allowing 60% of the freight in the cargo-hold to go unscreened. They confiscate items their website says are allowed but five of their screeners were caught smuggling drugs through security.

    It’s also creepy that this wholesale sexual assault on women and children is being sponsored by a blatantly gay woman. Napolitano claims empathy for the breast cancer victims being felt up at checkpoints but she doesn’t have to endure it, although she may enjoy watching.

    There have been 13 TSA screeners arrested this year and another 72 TSA screeners arrested in 2011, including eleven sex crimes involving children. TSA can’t prevent crime within their ranks but want us to trust them with airport security.

    Based on the $8.1 Billion TSA budget and 712 million screenings, each one costs $11.38. Since the security fee is only $2.50 the other $8.88 is taxpayer funded whether they fly or not. So those of us who have stopped or heavily reduced our air travel are forced to pay for TSA despite being driven away by them. Since this security circus is free to the airlines, subsidizing the industry with free security to the tune of $4.8B per year, they will continue to accept all of the security antics that TSA dreams up. If those who still fly want all of this intrusive security them make them pay for it and leave the rest of us alone.

    This agency is a national disgrace and the lack of responsible management enables many abuses, crimes and failures to continue to occur. TSA is too broken to be reformed and must be replaced with something that actually works.

    1. A former head of the Transportation Security Administration, Kip Hawley, has actually spoken out against the TSA’s methods and strategy in an article for the NY Times

      Regarding your comment: ‘It’s also creepy that this wholesale sexual assault on women and children is being sponsored by a blatantly gay woman…’ Would it make you feel better if the TSA were sponsored by a male heterosexual? I take it not, but no one should be judged based on their sexual orientation alone, especially in sensitive cases like this one. Whether Janet Napolitano the Secretary of Homeland Security in the US is homosexual or not is neither here nor there. It’s important to keep the policies in perspective, otherwise it is unlikely they will change.


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