NASS’s Rafi Ron says ‘we must go back to the basic human-factor element and improve our performance in this realm.’Five years after the tragedy of 9/11, airport and rail security personnel are rapidly adopting an Israeli method for spotting terrorists by their body language.
Labeled SPOT – Screening Passengers by Observation Technique – the program, which has been introduced by the Transportation Safety Authority (TSA) in the US and the British Aircrafts Authority (BAA) in England, was devised by Rafi Ron, former chief security officer of the Israeli Airport Authority.
Ron is the founder and CEO of Maryland-based New Age Security Solutions (NASS) which was established shortly after 9/11 according to their website ‘in order to answer the new emerging security needs of governments and private sector organizations’. The SPOT method is buit upon the gold ribbon security standards at Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv.
NASS’s behavior pattern recognition program, which aims at recognizing terrorists through observation of their mannerisms, has caught on big time in an era in which metal detectors aren’t the be all and end all to airport security. The methods include observing small movements of the lips, eyebrows and nose, to detect nervousness and suspiciousness.
“Terrorists have a characteristic of coming up with new inventive solutions. They overcome our technology. The TSA’s strategy during the last five years has been almost purely technological. There’s no human interaction,” Ron told The Denver Post. “We must go back to the basic human-factor element and improve our performance in this realm.”
The company started its activity with a major security revamp at Boston’s Logan International airport immediately after 9/11, when the TSA began testing a version of SPOT. Ann Davis, the agency’s Boston-based spokeswoman for the Northeast, told the LA Times that the Logan program “is a derivative of a program by the Israelis.”
In the TSA version, uniformed officers in and around security checkpoints scan passengers for “involuntary physical and psychological reactions” that behavioral scientists say may signal stress, fear or deception. Officers also “may engage the passenger in casual conversation to observe the response,” Davis added. If there are enough suspicious signs, the passenger may then be sent to secondary screening or questioned by police.
Since its initial testing at Logan Airport, the TSA version of SPOT has been tested in Portland and Bangor, Maine; Providence, RI; and Minneapolis-St. Paul. A TSA spokesperson said that TSA officers had been able to detect suspects who were arrested on such charges as smuggling drugs or possessing fake passports.
Over the summer, the TSA upped the ante further by announcing that it would train more than 500 “behavior detection officers,” in SPOT techniques over the next two years.
In London, the BAA has started using the SPOT method at the Heathrow Express rail service, following a two-day training program for security personnel by Ron’s staff. The trials have been so successful that the BAA was considering training all frontline staff at its seven airports, including 6,000 at security checkpoints.
Andrew Sharp, director of the International Air Rail Organization, said that Heathrow staff would attempt to engage in casual conversation with anyone who exhibited suspicious signs, such as sweating or a clenched fist. “They try to make friendly eye-contact and talk to the person to see if they react normally. If they feel unhappy about a person they can report them,” he told The Times of London, adding that the techniques were less controversial than picking out passengers according to race or clothing.
Ron explained to Chief Security Officer MagazineSecurity systems that the lessons of 9/11 prompted the increasing popularity of the SPOT method, and insisted that it has nothing to do with racial profiling.
“[9/11] led us to the conclusion that it is not enough to look for things, we have to look for malicious intentions. They can be identified by a level of search and the other security procedures that could substantially mitigate the risk of a successful attack. So in [some] countries, specifically Israel, the solution to that is the vast use of profiling. The problem when it comes into the United States is that profiling is racial. It is not only unethical but it is illegal.
In addition, Ron explained that from his experiences while heading security at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, racial profiling is not an effective way to single out terrorists.
“The major attacks at Ben Gurion Airport were carried out by Japanese terrorists in 1972 and Germans in the 1980s. [They] did not belong to any expected ethnic group. Richard Reid [known as the shoe bomber] did not fit a racial profile. Professionally as well as legally, I oppose the idea of racial profiling. So we are left with behavior, because behavior is probably the Achilles heel of the terrorist.
“In the Reid case, there were at least five crew members who later told me they had a suspicious feeling about Reid when he boarded the aircraft. The technology that was supposed to have dealt with the threat failed to do so. The clear conclusion from that is that when you [a terrorist] have to overcome a certain technological screening process, you can find a way to overcome it, but human behavior is where you will fail. Because a person carrying out a major terrorist attack that will probably end his life as well as the lives of many others cannot be in a sane state of mind. Even people who can control their behavior still fail to do so frequently. Crew members thought Reid looked suspicious.”
According to Ron, behavior pattern recognition teaches that more objective criteria than racial profiling must be used that is focused on behavior.
“We provide the trainees with a great understanding of terrorist behavior. It is extremely difficult for people to disguise the fact they are under tremendous amount of stress, that they are going to kill themselves and a lot of people around them in a short amount of time, and all the other factors that affect their behavior.”