The Transportation Security Administration is piloting a new “chat down” program in an attempt to detect potential terrorists. Borrowed from Israeli security officials, the “chat down” initiative involves using highly trained officers to conduct behavioral profiling by talking with passengers as they go through security checkpoints.  During the “chat,” travelers are asked a series of questions like where are they going, for what, and for how long.

The ‘chat downs’ rely on behavioral science about micro-expressions and aim to detect certain involuntary clues that people give off when they are lying. George Nacarra, federal security director for the TSA at Logan Airport, told NPR officials are looking for “movement of the eyes, perspiring in a cool environment, the Adam’s apple movement. … I can’t be more specific because they are somewhat classified.”

Opponents of the pilot program say that “chat downs” may lead to more racial and ethnic profiling, and that the sheer number of passengers in the U.S. would prevent such screening from being useful. Also, some argue that TSA officials will not be trained effectively enough to be able to detect passengers’ micro-expressions.

Glen Reynolds, a lawyer at the University of Tennessee told NPR:

“Maybe they’ll turn out to be great at it, but I wouldn’t say they go so far as to inspire a lot of confidence,” says Glenn Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee and a vocal critic of the TSA. Reynolds says behavior detection officers in the U.S. tend to be lower ranking and less educated than the Israelis, and may not be up to the task. 

“It would be like deciding that you’re suddenly going to do brain surgery in every minute clinic around the country,” he says. “You can’t just retrain those people who may be perfectly good at dealing with poison ivy and sinus infections to suddenly do brain surgery. I mean, it’s just a different level.”

The ‘chat down’ program is being tested for 60 days at Boston’s Logan Airport. If successful, we can expect it roll out across the country soon.

What do you think of TSA’s new ‘chat down’ program? Do you think it will help to detect suspicious passengers? 

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