Deception Detection and Security

In USAToday (9/26/07)[http://www.usatoday.com/money/industries/travel/2007-09-25-behavior-detection_N.htm] there’s an interesting article on using nonverbal communication research to identify cues to deception and ultimately identify people who might be security risks at airports. The idea is that the security guards will be trained to detect deception—using the nonverbal research literature as a base—and then question those who look like they might be hiding something or about to do something harmful.
This has got to be one of the dumbest ideas that the Transportation Security Administration has come up with since 9/11/01. The reasons why this is dumb—some of which were discussed in the article—are many. Here are just a few:
1. We really don’t know enough about nonverbal communication cues to make such predictions. Many different feelings and intentions may be encoded nonverbally in the same way. You may, for example, avoid eye contact with security personnel because you’re up to no good and fear detection or because you’re shy and you normally avoid eye contact with strangers.
2. The research on deception detection has usually looked at deception during interactions, not while a person is standing in line or reading a newspaper. The assumption that the research from interactive studies can be applied to these “non-communication” type situations needs to be tested and supported before being applied.
3. The chances of making errors are great. People are going to be singled out and questioned because of their unconventional behavior, totally unrelated to terrorism (concern about a recent relationship breakup, worry over a sick relative, fear of flying—the possibilities are endless).
4. It will be virtually impossible to teach security personnel about the nonverbal messages that signal deception in the hundreds of cultures whose members pass through airports daily. First, because we don’t know what these are (at least not reliably) and second, because such training (even if we knew what to teach) would take forever.
5. If security personnel can identify the cues to deception then the people who would be terrorists could also identify them. And, once identified, they most likely can be masked. The facial management techniques that are discussed in most textbook chapters on nonverbal communication are just some ways to hide true emotions. And, even if the TSA tries to focus on unconscious nonverbal cues, they too can be masked.
6. The practice will likely degenerate into racial profiling since race may be the most obvious observable characteristic. The security officer is likely to focus first on those individuals who are of the suspected race—today, it’s Muslim-looking individuals—and then look for the nonverbal signals on the list of tell-tale signs. Not only is such racial profiling likely to be ineffective, it’s going to prove insulting to every other member of that particular racial group—today, it’s Muslims, estimated at close to one and a half billion people.
This is not to say that airports must not be kept safe. Of course, they have to be and here is the major problem that’s wrong with this method.
7. Relying on this method will likely divert attention and money away from discovering better and more reliable means for identifying suspected terrorists. The assumption will be that this method of nonverbal deception detection will work and they’ll be no need to pursue other means for securing the safety of everyone.

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