Israel’s WeCu claims a 95 percent success rate for its new terrorist detection system that monitors reactions to visual stimuli at airports and checkpoints.
At the airport, how can you tell the good guys from the bad guys? The sad truth, as recent terror incidents have shown, is that there seems to be no foolproof way. Now a new detection system designed by an Israeli start up could improve the chances – eliminating some of the problems inherent in the most popular detection systems, and increasing the odds of nabbing a potential terrorist.
According to CEO Ehud Givon, WeCu raises detection to a whole new level. The company’s device – which was six years in the making – flashes stimuli, such as photos, a symbol, or a code word, relating to the information authorities are most interested in (whether it’s terrorism, drug smuggling or other crimes), to passengers as they pass through terminal checkpoints.
Hidden biometric sensors then detect the subjects’ physical reactions and subtle behavioral changes remotely or during random contact. Based on their reactions, the authorities determine whether further investigation or questioning is warranted. The rationale is that when a person is exposed to stimuli relating to behaviors that he or she is engaged in or familiar with, the reactions to the images will be heightened.
“For example, a subject could be sitting in a room with other people, when a photo of one of his relatives flashes on the screen. We would expect the subject to react differently to that image than the others do. The reaction could include a more rapid heartbeat, eye fluctuation, increased blood pressure, etc.” Givon explains.
It’s a very different approach to current security methods, which include intelligence, advance knowledge, criminal and psychological profiling, and of course baggage checks, body searches, and shoe removal.
WeCu’s system trumps profiling and intelligence
As the failed Christmas attack demonstrated only too clearly, intelligence isn’t foolproof. A warning by the father of the Nigerian terrorist who planned to blow up a plane over Detroit in December that authorities should “watch out” for his son apparently went unheeded. US officials say that such warnings are not unusual, and there was nothing in Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab’s background or application that indicated that he was too dangerous to be allowed into the US.
And as for profiling – pulling people out of line for carrying extra large bags, wearing raincoats on a hot day, or just ‘looking suspicious’ – critics claim that it produces numerous false positives, while wasting time and resources. And of course, once terrorists learn what profilers are looking for, they know which behaviors to avoid. Not to mention that racial profiling is a questionable approach and has been known to be costly when innocent victims sue the authorities.
“Profiling doesn’t always work and it makes many people angry,” acknowledges Givon. “Our method focuses not on an external profile, but instead checks each individual’s reactions to specific stimuli, measuring their physiological response. Based on the criteria and the response, we can accurately determine whether a candidate is likely to behave in an illegal or dangerous manner.”
The trick, says Givon, one of Israel’s top engineers, is that WeCu focuses on very close corroboration between stimuli and reaction, to the extent that the system can almost always pick out individuals who pose a threat. Tests in both lab and real-life situations with hundreds of subjects have shown that 95 percent of the people flagged by the WeCu system are indeed “persons of interest” with whom authorities would want to have a chat, claims Givon.
While conscious behavior that would fit a profile can be controlled, it’s almost impossible to hide automatic physical reactions and subtle, almost involuntary behavior changes, says Givon.
Passengers remain unaware of monitoring
“One of the many advantages of the WeCu system is that the subject is not even aware he or she is being monitored,” says Givon. “The system can be easily integrated with ‘normal’ activities, such as check-in at an airport, or a parcel check at a government office building. The point is that the subject doesn’t even realize a check is being performed,” he says, adding that “for the average person, the stimuli – of which there are an unlimited number for each type of investigation – is so run of the mill that it’s barely noticeable.
WeCu’s detection device has been extensively tested, and Givon says that feedback from top profilers suggests that WeCu is much more effective than current methods.
The system also preserves people’s privacy. “We keep no records and do not take into account anything other than the reaction of the subject to the stimuli presented by the WeCu device. We have no prior information about the person, and we don’t care who he is, where he comes from, or what he believes. We don’t even keep a database of reactions, unless of course the subject reacts in a manner that raises alarm bells,” says Givon.
WeCu was first developed as an attempt to track down potential suicide bombers. It went on the market several months ago and interest among customers is high. Deployment in a number of venues will begin in the coming months, says Givon.
Until recently, the company was operating under the radar – it still lacks a website – but its work is known and respected in the security community, to the extent that it won an award as one of the 60 top companies that will impact Israel’s tomorrow, during the country’s 60th anniversary celebrations.
The greatest hope – no news
WeCu was developed by Givon, along with other leading lights in the Israeli scientific community, including professor of psychology (and former Knesset member) Shlomo Breznitz, who specializes in stress situations; Dr. Boaz Ganor, founder and executive director of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya; and Tsipora Alster, an expert in behavioral sciences; and other experts in behavior and terrorism.
Located in northern Israel and employing about a dozen people, the company has received several grants from the Israel Chief Scientist’s Office and the US Transportation Safety Administration and Department of Homeland Security, but is 90% self-funded.
While there is always media interest in systems that may prevent terrorist attacks, Givon says his greatest hope is that there won’t be any news to prompt interest in WeCu. “And hopefully, when the system is widely deployed,” he adds, “there will be far less media interest in what we do – because there will be far fewer terror incidents to report.”
The use of biometric security systems is on the rise in Israel. Early this month Israel’s Airport Authority unveiled new biometric security technology with machines that recognize passengers using a biometric triple identification system called Unipass which should make the job of human security personnel quicker and more efficient. At present it is only available to El Al Israel Airlines business class passengers.