Can Behavioral Profiling Help Screen for Terrorists? Recent terror threats spark new interest in improving airport security screening. Behavioral profiling is a method in which trained security screeners assess the outward behavior and hidden "tells" of a nervous person.
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Can Behavioral Profiling Help Screen for Terrorists?

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Can Behavioral Profiling Help Screen for Terrorists?

Can Behavioral Profiling Help Screen for Terrorists?

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You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I am Ira Flatow.

Last week's banning of bottles and liquids from airport carry-ons has focused on the problem of trying to outwit terrorists as they raise the ante in bomb-making technology. But amidst the calls for the installation of new high-tech, bomb-sniffing machinery were advising us to go back to the future to an old but successful low-tech solution: the human eyeball.

Some airports are now adopting a new method that relies on human observation called behavior recognition. You watch and observe travelers for signs of suspicious behavior, such as stress or anxiety, and then follow up these observations with a conversation that might offer further clues into a passenger's intentions.

Sound familiar? Well, it was adapted from Israeli airport security and is now the basis for a new federal program called SPOT, or Screening Passengers by Observation Technique. Various transit police, U.S. Park Police have also adopted the method.

And joining us now to talk about behavior recognition is Rafi Ron, who first introduced the technique at Logan Airport in Boston. Mr. Ron is the former chief security officer for the Israeli Airport Authority at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv. He's now the president and CEO of New Age Security Systems, a Maryland-based company. He joins us by phone. Welcome to the program, Mr. Ron.

Mr. RAFI RON (President, CEO, New Age Security Systems): Thank you for having me.

FLATOW: Is this just a variation? Is it acceptable to call this behavior profiling?

Mr. RON: Well, to some extent it is. But the term profiling in this country has earned bad reputation, because for too many years, profiling has been exercised as racial profiling, and therefore it has been recognized as such. What we are talking has nothing to do with racial profiling.

On the contrary, the racial profiling is something that we in Israel have learned the hard way that could be misguiding. The airport where I ran security for a very long five years, Tel Aviv Ben Gurion Airport, was subjected twice to terrorist attacks. One back in 1972, an attack that was carried out by a group of Japanese terrorists. And then later in the mid-80s by an arriving German blonde hair, blue eyed terrorist.

So we have learned that focusing on ethnicity and race is not exactly a good idea. Terrorists today are very aware that people of Middle Eastern appearance draw attention from the public and from law enforcement. Therefore, they're trying to recruit and use people like those that we have seen in London who are local breed. They've been recruiting people like John Lindh Walker from California. If you remember the American citizen that was picked up in Afghanistan during the initial invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11, there are other names, and if you look at the history of terrorist attacks against Western and Israeli targets, you would see a lot of the names, they were carried by non-Arab, non-Middle Eastern, and sometimes not even Muslim people.

FLATOW: So what do you then focus, and what do you look for? If you're training somebody, what do you tell them the tell-tale signs are?

Mr. RON: Well, first of all, in order to understand how that works, one must realize that there's a difference between the way it works in Israel to the way it works in this part of the world. And the main reason is that in Israel, 100 percent of the passengers are being interviewed, so we have an opportunity to actually learn about the passengers through a verbal encounter across the board.

And that's very, very helpful. Here in is country, because of the volume as well as because of many other issues, including privacy issues, this is not an option. But yet we still have a way to focus on a smaller number of people that exhibit certain types of behavior that we recognize as behavior that could be - and I emphasize the term could, because it's necessary that anyone who exhibits those indicators are automatically - is automatically a terrorist and should be treated as such. But people that exhibit certain patterns of behavior that we have recognized as relevant could become people of interest that may want to talk to them in a very friendly manner that would help us realize or receive enough information to take a decision about the level of risk that that specific passenger represents.

FLATOW: And what kind of behavior are you talking about?

Mr. RON: Well, I think that for obvious reasons I will refrain from listing out the cues or the indicators that we're looking for. I will only refer to them in general terms.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. RON: And I think we all - it's in our interest that we will not discuss them in details obviously. But I would say a few things about that.

First of all, when we look at who are the terrorists that have been attacking us lately, including the 9/11 terrorists and the group that was captured in London last week, what we can identify is that most of them, if not all of them, are people that do not have a long history of operational activities, terrorist operational activities. Actually, all of them - most of them, if not all of them - have never been involved in their life before in a operational terrorist activity.

Secondly, we can see, especially with the group in London, we can see that the quality of training that they have received is not necessarily high. This was not the case, by the way, with the 9/11 group. But they're training focused on one thing, and that is how to fly airplanes rather than on how to overcome the confrontation - the verbal confrontation with law enforcement people.

In other terms, the bottom line is that all terrorists must use a cover story when they go to the airport to carry out their intention, because obviously they cannot describe their agenda in any truthful terms. So they have to come up with a cover story, and that cover story is what we are looking for and what are trying to dismantle in the process.

So we will be looking for people that exhibit those elements of stress, high stress, that a first-timer, when he carries an explosive device and goes into the airport is going through at the time. We will be looking to other kind of patterns that could be related to the type of weapon that he is using. For example, if someone is attempting to attack the airport facility itself like those suicidal terrorists that we have seen around the world attacking various ground facilities, there's a certain thing or certain way that his behavior - walking, body language, use of names and etcetera - is affected by the fact that he's wearing an explosive device under his jacket. There's a way to - it might be different in the way he's dressed, but certainly a difference in the way he moves about and responds to things around him.

So what we're trying to do is we're trying to create an environment where those patterns will be more obvious to us, and we're using that in order to detect those individuals that we want to approach, and as I said earlier, in a friendly manner, and with their cooperation gain more information that will allow us to take the next decision.

FLATOW: How important is that follow-up interview? You mentioned that in Israel everybody, 100 percent of the passengers, go through it. How important - and can you train enough people in this country to make the - you know, to be effective observers? After all, you've been doing it in Israel in decades. How quickly can you train without, you know, creating a giant net that nets too many false - false positives, as I might say?

Mr. RON: Well, first of all, to your first question, not only that has turned out to be a very effective measure, but I would even say that if you look at the history of aviation security, there has never been a single case where an explosive device aimed at the aircraft was detected by a machine. With all the technology that we're using, it's a strong deterrence, though, but we haven't yet caught even a single explosive device in our X-ray systems ever.

But we did catch terrorists, and we did stop attempted attacks through the use of this interview. A perfect example - actually, I can talk about two perfect examples. One is a very famous case of a young Irish girl, pregnant, that was making her way to board an El Al flight in London, and she was carrying a bomb without her knowledge, a bomb that was given to her by her boyfriend, who was a Palestinian operated by Syrian intelligence. And when she came to check in for the flight, she was subjected to this interview, and through the interview it was realized that she is concealing some very substantial pieces of information that could have been relevant to clear her. So in this process - or in other terms, it became very clear that she is lying.

And once this was - this became obvious, she was subjected to a very thorough search, something that we cannot afford to do to everybody, and something that they would have detected any kind of explosive device, whether a liquid or a powder or anything else, and only through this very detailed search, the very sophisticated explosive device concealed in her bag was detected.

FLATOW: Talking with - let me get a station break in. I'm talking with Rafi Ron, president and CEO of New Age Security Solutions in Maryland, on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

But how do you stay one step ahead of the terrorists? Is it possible that they could learn to, you know, to adjust to the interrogation and to be better actors, so to speak, so they're not picked out at the airports?

Mr. RON: Well, then can try, and I'm sure they will. Actually, I'm sure they're already doing that. But yet, as I indicated earlier, this is an inherent weakness that the terrorists have. First of all, controlling human behavior is much more difficult than abusing a recognized loophole in technology performance, because technology is very consistent. That's the good news and the bad news.

Being so consistent, we know what to expect from it, but we also know what we cannot expect from it. So once the terrorists have realized that we have a certain technological weakness like the one they have recognized when it came to liquid explosives, or the one that was recognized by Richard Reid that allowed him to create a device that he took through our security checkpoint successfully.

FLATOW: The shoe bomber.

Mr. RON: Without being detected. So - but when it comes to people, it of course works very differently. When you have to confront a person on the other side, and you yourself have to exercise an extreme level of control over your own mental and behavioral aspects, it becomes extremely difficult. And they fail again and again in that respect.

When you look at the Richard Reid story again, that's a very good example, by the way. Because we - I mean he failed and we managed to learn a lot about this case to draw a lot of conclusions. And Richard Reid, when he came to check in for the flight in Charles de Gaulle Airport, had to go through a security interview that is carried out by a private security company on inbound flights to the United States. He failed the interview. Actually, he failed badly, badly enough that the private security person called in the French police to interrogate him.

I looked at the statistics of that specific flight for over a year before this incident, and there was not even a single case when the French police was called in, to show just the level of the suspicion that Richard Reid drew in this interview. The French police failed to interrogate him properly. That's another subject that we can talk about, whether the existing law enforcement culture, whether it is in Europe or here, is adequate to deal and to recognize terrorists when they see one.

The French certainly failed in that and allowed Richard Reid to continue. So if we look again, we look at the - and compare his ability to cross the technological checkpoint was perfect.

FLATOW: Well Rafi, we have only about a minute left, but I don't want to let that go, that comment you made about whether, even if we adopt these systems, we're able to identify a terrorist if we see one.

Mr. RON: It's not a hundred percent solution and it's not the silver bullet to all our problems, but it is an extremely important layer. We have the advantage over the terrorists, while with technology the terrorists have the advantage because our technology is very stable and very consistent. And if they have access to the information, which they have, because most of these technologies are well known; the technology can be studied in countries that are friendly to terrorists...

FLATOW: Mr. Ron, I only have - I want to get an answer, whether you think we can train people adequately in this country...

Mr. RON: Yes. The answer is yes. We may need to elevate the level of people that we want to recruit for this purpose. And I can tell you that in Israel we spent a lot of resources to choose the right people for this job, because it calls for above the average intellectual qualities. But it is possible. I can tell you that at Ben Gurion Airport on a good summer day when - at the peak of the season, we were carrying out about 50,000 such interviews a day.

FLATOW: Wow, all right.

Mr. RON: And we managed to control that and even run exercises during this time to keep all profilers on their toes and make sure that every one of them would feel that the next passenger might be the one that they have to pick up.

FLATOW: All right, Mr. Ron, we've run out of time. I want to thank you very much for taking the time to talk with us. Rafi Ron, President and CEO of New Age Security Solutions in Maryland.

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