Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Face Readers As Airport Screeners

My mom is freaked out about the 500 new "face readers" at airports trained by eminent psychologist Paul Eckman. I have followed Eckman's work for years and read all his books (even the boring ones about Darwin and emotions in animals). Well, people are being taught to catch psychos by looking at their faces:

At the heart of the new screening system is a theory that when people try to conceal their emotions, they reveal their feelings in flashes that Ekman, a pioneer in the field, calls "micro-expressions." Fear and disgust are the key ones, he said, because they're associated with deception.
Actually, mom, the screening itself doesn't bother me. What bothers me is this:
A behavior specialist may decide to move in to help the suspicious passenger recover belongings that have passed through the baggage X-ray. Or he may ask where the traveler's going. If more alarms go off, officers will "refer" the person to law enforcement officials for further questioning.

The strategy is based on a time-tested and successful Israeli model, but in the United States, the scrutiny is much less invasive, Ekman said. American officers receive 16 hours of training — far less than their Israeli counterparts_ because U.S. officials want to be less intrusive.
This philosophy is just stupid. A terrorist won't be a little bit terror filled. And the police who are checking out suspicious screeners shouldn't be a little bit trained. In fact, it could be argued that better training would make screeners less intrusive. A poorly trained observer is likely to think far more people suspicious or miss the most subtle criminals. Extensive training is essential to protect the civil liberties of the innocent.

It would be impossible to implementIsrael's profiling and screening procedures, however. First, America has millions more passengers and far more airports. Second, civil libertarians and American law won't abide the obvious and non-random profiling.

In my untrained opinion, an Israeli-style program is overkill anyway. The greatest impediment to airline terrorism in the U.S. is the willingness of U.S. citizens to subdue dangerous looking and acting passengers. Rather than millions of dollars being spent on screening, make sure Americans can throttle a weirdo trying to light his shoe without fear of being sued. Citizens must be able to act in self-defense with impunity. This defense is cheap and ubiquitous. Terrorists will always be able to thwart screening systems especially in the U.S.

Empower Americans. That puts fear into the bravest of terrorists and it's just what the terrorists don't want.