New TSA screening program to punish ‘facecrime’

For the last several years the acronym-loving Transportation Security Administration has been running a program called SPOT. This stands for Screening Passengers by Observation Technique, and is essentially a very low-rent attempt to do what security staff at Israel’s airports do; that is, to detect people with mal-intent by reading their facial expressions and body language. You would be excused for thinking this has already been done on television. Welcome to the world of Dr. Cal Lightman of Fox’s series Lie to Me (where one of his employees was a former TSA screener, no less).  TSA screeners trained in the magical powers of SPOT engage unsuspecting travelers in seemingly innocuous conversation while attempting to read their intentions.  As you might guess, in the hands of ill-trained TSA employees these techniques have been about as effective as using a pasta strainer to decant a bottle of wine.

This morning the TSA announced a pilot program to greatly expand the scope and depth of SPOT screening at Boston’s Logan Airport.  Screeners will “make quick reads of whether passengers pose a danger or a terror threat based on their reactions to a set of routine questions.”

More: “Under the SPOT program, as passengers hand over their boarding passes and identification, specially trained agents will ask three to four questions — from ‘Where have you been?’ to ‘Do you have a business card?’ and ‘Where are you traveling?’ — while looking for ‘micro expressions,’ such as lack of eye contact, that might hint at nefarious intent.

Suspicious individuals will be pulled aside for more questioning, full-body scans and pat-downs. If the encounter escalates, agents will call in state police.”

Like all TSA “pilot” programs, from aggressive, sexual assault patdowns to deployment of the naked scanners, you can rest assured that these interrogations will be rolled out nationally just in time for the holiday travel season.

Discerning people’s thoughts and intentions by reading their facial expressions is not a new idea.  A similar technique was applied to Soviet citizens who applied to travel outside of their region of residence.  And of course it was a key component of George Orwell’s novel 1984.  In fictional Oceania, facecrime was defined thus:

facecrime – “It was terribly dangerous to let your thoughts wander when you were in any public place or within range of a telescreen. The smallest thing could give you away. A nervous tic, an unconscious look of anxiety, a habit of muttering to yourself — anything that carried with it the suggestion of abnormality, of having something to hide. In any case, to wear an improper expression on your face (to look incredulous when a victory was announced, for example) was itself a punishable offence. There was even a word for it in Newspeak: facecrime, it was called.”

I’m not suggesting this is bunk science.  There are many credible researchers who back the idea that facial expressions and body language are important facets of human communication, and I agree with them.  What I am suggesting is:

1. The TSA is in no way competent enough to pull this off effectively. TSA claims that they will not use any racial profiling in this endeavor.  A four-day classroom course and 24-hours of on-the-job training will not equip these screening clerks to peform a job that would challenge a behavioral scientist.

2. This is a violation of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Courts have ruled that airports are a partial, special exception to the Bill of Rights (much like international borders).  These rulings have authorized airport security workers to conduct administrative searches.  This is a legally different standard than a search based on probable cause of wrongdoing.  These “conversations” with TSA agents wherein they solicit private information from you (presumably as a condition of flying) are beyond the scope of an administrative search.  For more of the specifics of the court rulings that have led to our current debacle of airport security, here’s some reading for you

here’s some reading for you

My strategy to address this new TSA violation of liberties is simple.  Here are my suggested responses:

“My mom told me not to talk to strangers.”

“None of your business, comrade.”

“You are attempting to violate my Constitutionally-protected liberties.  Please summon an actual law enforcement officer.”

  • Susan J. Barretta

    Sounds like “Minority Report” is here !  

    There DO EXIST potentially useful screening tools.  In the wrong hands, they are WORSE than not having any screening at all.

  • guest

    This is the point where I can simply no longer fly.  I haven’t flown but ONCE in the last 2 years, and I don’t plan to do it again any time soon.  I’m already a nervous person.  I internally panic when speaking with strangers, and when I CAN answer, I ramble stupidly.  Being patted down every flight is bad enough, I don’t need these lunatics watching my FACE for issues…

  • Anonymous

    Of course, any hint of questioning what they are doing, or expressing displeasure, or recording with a camera will be considered “suspicious” and automatic grounds for further screening. This isn’t about increasing safety or reducing discomfort for passengers, it’s about repressing the high levels of discontent among passengers and public criticism of the TSA screening process. Their goal is to get you all going through with smiling faces as it makes their abuses and their resulting bad consciences go easier.Of course, knowing some untrained person is deliberately checking out your facial expressions for signs of guilt, and knowing the end result is being radiated and felt up by another person, it’s bound to make some faces twitch. The only people who will get through unharassed will be those who don’t give a hoot that their civil liberties and dignity are being eroded more and more each day.

  • Kyle

    If you said any of those things, how would they react to you? You’d probably get detained and not be allowed to board your flight.

    Sigh. I hate TSA. 

  • Anonymous

    Sometimes people can’t avoid flying, but my suggestion is that people boycott the vacation industry.  The 1% who set up this totalitarian-state warmup own these fancy resorts and hotels, and if people boycotted them, it might make a smidgeon of difference. 

    As long as the TSA continues to violate our constitutional rights, we should not only avoid unnecessary air travel,but also boycott the vacation industry.  Take a car-trip to a national park instead.

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