Airport security checks are not only intrusive, demeaning and a mind-numbing drain on our precious time. They don't actually work. But as David Rose reports from Israel, a new generation of scanning systems are so good they can pick out a terrorist by asking a terribly simple question: Are you or are you not a terrorist?
...'The system you have in Europe and America is bull****. Unless you adopt an approach that actually works, whatever technology you care to use will make little difference. The terrorists will always be one step ahead,' says Rafi Sela, a top Israeli security consultant. Through his firm, AR Challenges, he is in charge of marketing the automated Israeli method to Europe and America as a complete package - what he calls Trust Based Security, or TBS.
'How many times in the history of aviation have the scanners and security procedures that currently cause such huge anger and inconvenience actually found explosives in baggage or on a passenger?' Sela asks.
The answer, shockingly, is zero. It's true that a bomb packed by the Jordanian Nizar Hindawi in the hand luggage of his pregnant girlfriend Anne Murphy was discovered at Heathrow in 1986. But she was trying to board a flight on the Israeli airline El Al - which uses the same selector method abroad as at Ben Gurion: it was a selector's questioning that revealed Hindawi's plot.
The bombers who killed 270 when Pan Am Flight 103 blew up over Lockerbie in 1988; the 2001 shoe bomber Richard Reid; Umar Abdulmutallab, the former London University student who tried to detonate a bomb in his underpants above Detroit last Christmas; all smuggled their explosives on to aircraft undetected.
...But the point where it starts to get truly futuristic is inside the terminal building. The automated equivalent of Ben Gurion's selectors has been developed in the business park at the ancient Roman town of Caesarea by WeCU (pronounced 'we see you') Technologies.
'The beauty of this is that you can do it without interrupting the normal flow at the airport, without interrogation and without infringing human rights,' says CEO Ehud Givon.
'And tests have shown it's extremely accurate - close to 100 per cent.'
Working with Shlomo Breznits, a world-renowned psychology professor from Haifa, Givon and his colleagues derived their machine from the science that shows that anyone who comes across a familiar stimulus - for example, a branch of the bank he or she uses, or a favoured chain restaurant - will show a small but completely involuntary physical response.
'If you expose the subject to something that he knows, he will react, and this produces a detectable physiological change,' Givon says. 'And it's even better if he knows this test is going to happen. This isn't a trick. Nobody is going to be deceived.'
WeCU's technology can easily be incorporated into existing airport processes, such as the stand-up computers found at fast bag drop and check-in stations. Built into the screen is a cheap but highly sensitive thermal imaging sensor, which can measure data including the temperature of the subject's skin, heart rate, perspiration, blood pressure and changes in breathing, as well as other variables - 14 in all - most of which, says Givon, are classified. When the passenger begins to use the station, all these readings are taken almost instantly in order to establish a 'biological baseline'.
Then, over the course of the next 30 seconds, the machine will expose the subject to a stimulus that would cause a response in someone involved with terrorism, but not anyone else.
'I'm not going to give you details here, but it could be a sentence threaded into the instructions about getting a boarding pass or an image on the screen,' says Givon, 'or something as simple as a statement that says, "Thank you for keeping this flight safe". And whatever it is can be changed every day.
'The point is, the person who knows about terrorism will react, and the sensor will measure that reaction. It won't pick out the person who's stressed about flying, or the guy who's worried about a tax bill. But it will pick out the traveller who seems to know about terror - in about 35 seconds flat. You don't have to arrest that person, merely move on to further checks. And by the way, the more you try to train yourself not to react to the stimulus, the more clearly you will stand out.'
Tests show WeCU's system has a low 'false positive' rate, and will typically identify just one or two per cent of travellers as possible suspects. But even they need only move to the next automated layer - another hi-tech method devised by SDS, Suspect Detection Systems, a small company near Tel Aviv. Its board includes Amiram Levin, a former deputy head of Mossad.
Already installed at one of Israel's land border crossings, SDS's airport machine is essentially an automatic polygraph. It consists of a booth in which the passenger sits, wearing headphones and responds to questions that are both spoken and appear on a screen. Sensors record data ranging from the skin's electrical conductivity to movement, both from the eyes and from the subject's left hand, which rests in a special cradle.
'Take the case of the Detroit bomber, Abdulmutallab,' says SDS's CEO, Eran Drukman. 'The security officers where he boarded, Schipol in Amsterdam, could see he stood out: he had a one-way ticket and no luggage. But his underpants bomb didn't show up on their scanners, and they had no way of knowing whether he had hostile intent - hence no legal means to stop him getting on the plane. This system gives you that capability.'
The subject facing automatic interrogation doesn't even have to answer the machine's yes/no questions in order to record a response, and some of those questions will be very basic: 'Are you involved in terrorist activity?' or, 'Are you carrying explosives?' 'Suicide terrorists aren't scared of dying,' says Drukman, 'but they are scared of being caught. That gives us the hook.'
As with the WeCU system, SDS's detector depends on the fact that physical responses to such questions, aggregated and analysed by a computerised algorithm, are involuntary. Most subjects will be cleared after just one minute.Read the whole thing.
(h/t Zach via Facebook)