More on the undercover TSA officers

Two days ago I mentioned the delightful story about the TSA's plan to place "behavior detection officers," or BDOs, in airports and to disguise them in ... TSA uniforms. Herewith several relevant responses.

1) About the plan's underlying genius:

"There are so many security officers at the airport that one no longer notices them.  It's like policemen at the US capitol building, or people wearing orange clothes at a Clemson football game.  Clothing that would be conspicuous in normal situations becomes the best way to blend in at the airport."

2) About how it may be working in Seattle:

"I witnessed this in action at SeaTac airport on this past Sunday morning. But I have to say the quote: "They do not focus on nationality, race, ethnicity or gender, said TSA spokeswoman, Sari Koshetz, does not ring true.

"As I (a nicely dressed white middle aged woman) sat there a young woman of Asian heritage was approached and asked for her boarding pass. She complied and I didn't think anything of it but realized it was a newly established check point. Then a few minutes later another TSA agent approached the same woman and asked again. Hmmm, was she so nervous looking? Not to me, she looked like the rest of us bored and waiting to go folks. She did have a nice long conversation on her cell phone in a language I could not understand but there are thousands of people who do this. Another young white woman who was sitting to my right was shocked and said "but they just asked her". Yep. So they don't focus on nationality, race or ethnicity? I am not at all convinced and will be observing to see how this plays out." [JF note: Like all law enforcement work, this is tricky. Eg, in any sensible risk-based system people in their 20s would deserve more attention than people in their 70s or 80s. The trick of course is drawing the line between that sort of common-sense triage and blanket categorization. Let's hope TSA is working on it.]

3) An account from inside the system:

"I [have a relative] who is in fact one of the Behavior Detection Officers your item today mentions. She is a very nice, petite Asian woman, and she finds it pretty entertaining that she is now a BDO and gets to flag people for extra security, question them, etc.
"Some of her comments to us about her job raise some questions (for me at least, I don't think she thinks this critically about her job) about how these officers are regulated, and their approach to screening.
"One of her comments during a recent visit: "You know, those Arabs come through in groups of two or three, thinking they won't make us suspicious. But we know what they're up to...they're trying to get away with something. I'm not allowed to flag them or question them just because they look suspicious, though, they have to meet the checklist. And you know they know what the checklist is, and they're practicing their behavior so they can beat it." The checklist she's referring to is a list of "suspicious" behaviors (I gather there are like 15-20 on the list) and a person has to meet a certain threshold (# of suspicious behaviors) in order to be pulled for extra security or questioning. While I do approve of the general strategy here (assessment-driven, data-based, theoretically unbiased) it does leave me with some questions about whether someone could practice behaving in a non-suspicious way, thereby rendering these BDOs' jobs fairly useless.
"Additionally, as the article/report noted, BDOs do wear regular TSA uniforms. She often stands just outside the line to the metal detectors, watching for suspicious behavior, or sometimes she roams the gate areas with a partner. She says (and I can definitely believe this) that most people think she is a slacker TSA agent, just standing around doing nothing. (I have noticed these "slackers"--now at least there is a possibility they really aren't slacking off, just doing their BDO thing.) [JF note: Yes, now that I think of it, I've seen these roving/chatting pairs of TSA agents and assumed they were just on break time.]

"One other interesting tidbit is that she was selected for the BDO program as an existing TSA agent--she has no college degree, psychology courses, or other special training beyond the fairly short course the TSA offered to her in order to become certified as a BDO (and it really is a *certification*--she has her BDO certificate with seal and all hanging in her home office). I really do wonder how effective this training, and their observations, can be.
"To be clear, I don't agree that anything the TSA does is making us any safer, despite her exhortations that "you don't even want to know the stuff we find and take away from people..."

4) And once again about underlying genius of the plan:

"Maybe they're just leveraging everyone's certainty that TSA agents are robotic, stupid rule-followers, and as such, nothing to worry about when they're away from their post. Given this presumption, a TSA uniform is a great disguise for someone with strong observation skills and who's actually paying attention.
"Yeah, I'm sure that's it!"