What a Guilty Person Looks Like

A list of the physical visual tells used in behavioral profiling to catch potential bad guys

During the past three years, the Transportation Security Administration has been testing a security

program that examines how people behave, rather than how they look. The Screening Passengers by

Observation Techniques (SPOT) program was first deployed in airports throughout the Northeast in

mid-2003, and is now being implemented in airports nationwide. George Naccara, federal security

director of TSA, who is overseeing the SPOT program nationwide, describes SPOT as an additional layer

of security: "flexible and adaptable. It focuses on behavior observation, he says, looking for things out

of the ordinary, that indicate "stress, fear or deception.

Part of SPOT derives from work by a noted psychologist, Paul Ekman, a pioneer in recognizing facial

patterns that correspond to certain behaviors and emotionsquite literally he can spot

happiness, sadness, fear and so on as they flash across faces. But Naccara and proponents of

behavioral pattern recognition in general acknowledge that many people become nervous when they fly,

exhibiting "abnormal behaviors that are, in fact, very normal. That's why before tagging someone as

suspicious, TSA personnel must identify a certain number of behaviors using SPOT. "If they reach a

certain thresholdwhich would require an aggregate of different behaviorsthen we

might treat them as selectees, which subjects them to additional screening, says Naccara. "Or, we may

call a law enforcement officer over to engage in additional discussion and interrogation in order to

resolve any uneasiness we have with that passenger. This discussion with the suspect, sometimes

called a "walk and talk, is key to the success of behavioral profiling.

It takes a lot of training. But once screeners are trained, proponents say, the behaviors become

remarkably clear. One TSA staffer trained at Boston's Logan International Airport says that after his

training it was as if suspicious people were dyed purple. He also consistently spots people shoplifting in

stores when he's not working.

Katherine Walsh

Some of the things TSA employees might look for include:

  • Rapidly darting eyes
  • Deliberate and forceful attempts to make eye contact or trade hand gestures with a specific person,

    perhaps a coconspirator

  • Quivering, overactive Adam's apple in men
  • Profuse sweating
  • Pulsing carotid artery, a tell used by a Utah state trooper who identified a wanted polygamist by his

    throbbing neck vein

  • Inappropriate clothing for the weather conditions
  • Voice changes, overly combative or stressful tones of voice, regardless of what one is saying
  • Loitering without luggage
  • Long periods studying parts of the airport, especially security areas
  • Anything else that seems, intuitively, suspicious
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