Behavioral screening could boost airport security
December 11, 2008 If terrorists aimed to frustrate millions of air travelers with time consuming pre-flight baggage searches they definitely seem to have made progress, but new technologies used to analyze human behavior could provide an alternative to the time consuming process of analyzing the content of passengers’ carry-on luggage. These systems would detect signs of emotional strain that could indicate that a passenger may intend to commit an act of terror. It might sound like science fiction, but such technology is much further advanced than most might think, and it’s not surprising that Israel, a country that faces constant security threats, has become a leader in developing such technologies.
One such company is Israel’s WeCU Technologies, who are developing a system that uses infra-red technology, remote sensors and imagers, and the flashing of subliminal images, such as a photo of Osama bin Laden, to provoke a response in a person. The system then uses strategically placed sensors to read a persons’ involuntary biometric responses such as body temperature, heart rate and respiration, to detect signs they may be about to commit an attack. The sensors could be contained in a ‘smart carpet’ filled with biometric sensors to gather the data needed, or even a ‘smart seat’ or cushion that could provide a more detailed read on someone sitting in the airport lounge. The third and final part of the system is a computerized data analysis and decision-making system that operates in real time.
Such a system relies on a person’s association with a subject or activity – in this case terrorism - when this person is exposed to stimuli targeted at these associations. The response is expressed with subtle physiological and behavioral changes which the system aims to detect.
The WeCU system is a technological take on a system already used for decades at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport whereby highly trained officers observe the passengers in line and to watch for potentially suspicious behavior. Officers will approach people doing things as seemingly benign as sweating excessively, fidgeting or talking on a pay phone, and ask to speak with them. This is not an interrogation but rather a casual conversation during which the officer looks for explanations for the suspicious behavior, as well as signs - such as telling facial expressions or evasive answers - that the person has something to hide. Nearly everyone interviewed is allowed to go after a minute or two. The few who arouse further suspicion are thoroughly searched and questioned. The technique is being tested in 14 US airports and has already been successful in apprehending a few suspected terrorists, as well as a raft of criminals who often exhibit the same suspicious behaviors.
There are also technologies in development that focus on a person’s voice to reveal their intentions. Nemesysco's LVA, or Layered Voice Analysis, is one such technology designed to pick up verbal cues from a passenger who may pose a threat by analyzing not what they say, but how they say it. Based on the premise that all voices have a certain frequency, and any deviation of that baseline frequency can indicate stress the company’s devices use a series of signal-processing algorithms that can differentiate between a ‘normal’ voice and a 'stressed’ voice. If emotional stress is detected, officials can determine if the passenger should be taken aside for further questioning.
Such systems that rely on analyzing people’s behavior and voice might sound a bit too Big Brother for some, but they offer not only improved detection of terrorists and less time waiting to board, but they do it in a way that is non intrusive and doesn’t rely on racial profiling.
The WeCU biometric technology is still under development, but they are negotiating contracts with airports worldwide and believe such systems could be implemented as soon as 2010 with an expected cost tens of thousands of dollars, while versions of Nemesysco's system have already been successfully tested at Moscow Domodedovo International Airport, where officials used it to target criminals and drug traffickers.