No behaviour checklist for CATSA, for now

The words “body check!” are the last thing you want to hear while going through the airport security line, but it’s the fate for many passengers. A full pat down is not supposed to be basically a substantial and meaningless grope by rude agents, but, yay! It sometimes is! Nobody wants to be felt up by a stranger in a bad uniform, especially from someone allegedly making our lives safer. But it happens. One Yahoo Travel editor swears a TSA agent at a Texas airport got to second base before her last flight.

Rest assured travellers, that shifty-eyed look you’re getting from the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) isn’t due to your excessive yawns – for the time being.

While U.S.-based airport authority the Transportation Security Agency is facing public backlash for a leaked 92-point checklist used for identifying terrorists – which includes common behaviours such as handwringing or excessive yawning – CATSA insists it doesn’t have a passenger behaviour observation program.

“The information circulating in the media does not reflect our screening operations in Canada,” Mathieu Larocque, spokesperson for the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority told Yahoo Canada in an email.

Larocque wouldn’t elaborate further on CATSA’s techniques but says the organization relies “on a layered approach that combines technologies and procedures.”

However, making snap judgments on passenger behaviour has been employed in Canada as a risk assessment tool in the past.

Between January and July 2011, 20 uniformed observation officers in CATSA garb worked the security checkpoints and line-ups at Vancouver Airport, watching for suspicious behavior like wearing heavy clothes on a hot day or paying unusual attention to the security process.

While both the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada and the Canadian Human Rights Commission were consulted from the beginning, the pilot program — not unlike the Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques program being used by the TSA — elicited cries of over-collection of passenger information.

In an April 2012 address to the Privacy and Ethics Committee, Jennifer Stoddart, Canada’s Privacy Commissioner at the time, criticized the program for gathering information on traveller activities that did not relate to aviation security — like flying domestically with large sums of cash — which is perfectly legal.

“The over-collection of data is worrisome because it can result in undeserved suspicion being cast on an innocent person,” she said.

Ultimately, the pilot program ended and chatter faded from the media for a few years.

But with three billion air passengers globally in 2013 alone and expectations that number will double by 2030, the broader trend in aviation points back to risk-based security, says William Morrison, an expert on airport transportation economics and associate professor at Wilfred Laurier University’s school of business and economics.

“I think behavioural detection will be the future in Canada,” says Morrison. “It’s already being adopted in lots of other places like the U.K. and other parts of Europe.”

But when Canada takes another stab at behaviour detection, he suspects it will differ from the U.S.’s checklist approach.

“I don’t think there’s reason to suspect we will be simply replicating some of the inefficiencies of the TSA here in Canada,” adds Morrison, pointing out that ideally, these sorts of behavior observation programs aren’t designed to prod people’s privacy, they’re designed to clear travellers through security faster and help reduce long wait lines.

But the current leak shows we still have a ways to go, says Dr. Kelly Sundberg, associate professor of justice studies at Mount Royal University and a former investigator with the Canada Border Services Agency.

“In the absence of comprehensive education and having the formalized evidence-based training program, the checklist is useless,” says Sundberg.

He points out that the CATSA is made up of subcontractors from security companies in government uniforms and while Transport Canada has standards for training, “they set the bar pretty low.”

“You think of the CBSA border guards, their job is interviewing non-stop, quickly,” says Sundberg. “But they don’t receive formal interview training as a rule.”

He points out that part of the problem is the sheer volume of training required.

“Training them is expensive — I bet you’d need 40 hours minimum and that’s a pretty big investment for them,” he adds.

He argues that investing in proper training will ensure airport security and border officials can recognize the difference between a genuine risk and a cranky passenger who’s just flown 12 hours and is agitated by all those lovely byproducts of being packed in a medal tube like a heaven-bound sardine.

“You can’t pigeonhole everybody and then within a few seconds determine if there’s a threat or not, it’s not realistic — it is, in my opinion, a very slippery slope because you’ll default to this checklist” says Sundberg. “There has to be comprehensive training.”