Counter-Terrorism’s Smoking Gun?

It has been nearly two decades since the fateful day of 911. The United States’ TSA (Transportation Security Administration), taking the lead from the DHS (Department of Homeland Security) has indeed spearheaded much of the response to this tragedy. By 2006, there was a flurry of Behavioural Detection Officers (BDOs) throughout some 440 US airports taking part in a new programme called SPOT (Screening Passengers by Observation Technique — now called ‘Behaviour Detection Analysis’). It wasn’t long until the UK government followed suit, modelling and adapting the SPOT technique at London’s Heathrow Airport in 2010, and Gatwick in 2013.

Considered the vanguard in Behavioural Detection developments, it is no surprise that the TSA has received heavy scrutiny from government watchdogs and alike. The science and morality of Behavioural Detection is disputed on several fronts. The JASON defence advisory group, in their 2008 report, declared “No scientific evidence exists to support the detection or inference of future behaviour, including intent,”. The constant barraging of criticism made the TSA take stock and partner with the DHS’s Science & Technology (S&T) Directorate to research and study behaviour detection; completing the SPOT Referral Report Validation Study in 2011. Since this time, the TSA has remained dynamic in their approach and response, and have honed their procedures. This can be seen clearly in their 2015 Report to Congress — Scientific Substantiation of Behavioural Indicators. It is clear that the TSA is proving resilient on this front; not stepping down, but expanding their horizons and influencing the rest of the modern world. With the UK echoing the US in this regard, BDOs have quickly multiplied over several industries, almost standardising the process, with several BD training establishments now operating throughout the country.

As well as companies implementing BD operations, the Metropolitan Police, through Project Servator, regularly deploys teams of specially trained officers to gather intelligence to assist counter-terrorism operations. In addition to airports, high footfall areas such as museums, sports stadiums, entertainment complexes, hotels and train/bus stations, police patrols from the BDOs are highly visible with some officers working covertly.

It appears as though Behavioural Detection has taken a foothold in society and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere soon. Rightly or wrongly, governments are going full steam ahead, with countries such as New Zealand showing a strong example of keeping abreast of behavioural analysis techniques. In spring, last year, Mount Smart Stadium in Auckland played host to Philip Baum — an international authority on behavioural analysis techniques, and Professor of Aviation Security at Coventry University. In 2018, New Zealand brought local experts together over a year to engage and build their way of implementing the latest techniques in BD. They appear to be ahead of the curve in some respects, with the website being a useful resource for all security professionals.

Is Behavioural Detection the ‘smoking gun’ in defeating terrorism? The TSA seems to think so. Though, to err on the side of caution, maybe this is one bullet to which we can fire but not solely rely upon to solve our world peace goals.



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Daniel Macleod

Daniel is the founder of — One writer’s abode where creativity crafts relationships through the power and grace of the written word