Spotting the Airline Terror Threat

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TIME exclusive: A new airport security system soon to be tested will rely on human judgment The most dangerous threat to commercial aviation is not so much the things bad people may be carrying, but the bad people themselves. That refrain heard constantly from airline security experts over the past three years appears to have finally been heeded by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Aviation sources tell TIME that the TSA plans to address the problem by launching its own passenger profiling system. The system known as SPOT (Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques) relies more on the human dimension in detecting threats, and is to be tested at two northeastern airports starting later this month.

"This is a radical change to aviation security," says Sgt. Peter DiDomenica, the Massachusetts State Police officer who developed the racially-neutral profiling program in place at Boston's Logan Airport, on which SPOT is based. "This is a very subtle but very effective program."

Unlike the TSA's recently announced program to use computer databases to scan for suspicious individuals whose names occur on passenger lists, SPOT is instead based squarely on the human element: the ability of TSA employees to identify suspicious individuals by using the principles of surveillance and detection. Passengers who flag concerns by exhibiting unusual or anxious behavior will be pointed out to local police, who will then conduct face-to-face interviews to determine whether any threat exists. If such inquiries turn up other issues of concern, such as travel to countries like Afghanistan, Iraq or Sudan, for example, police officers will know to pursue the questioning or alert Federal counter-terrorism agents.

DiDomenica has first-hand experience of the effectiveness of the system. He was using his own observation techniques — called BASS (Behavior Assessment Screening System) — last year when he saw man acting oddly near the checkpoint and stopped him. The suspect passenger turned out to be an agent from the Department of Homeland Security who had been trying to test the system by sneaking a prohibited device onto a plane.

Although the profiling programs are aimed primarily at stopping terrorists, they have had other benefits. The Massachusetts State Police have arrested about 20 people for infractions ranging from being in the country illegally to failing to answer outstanding warrants for various offenses.

The TSA plans to test SPOT for 60 days before committing to taking it nationwide, eventually to all of the country's 429 commercial airports.