Saturday, January 09, 2010

The Right Profiling

The Toronto Star has in interesting article on Israeli airport security and what we might learn from it. You've got to admit, they've been pretty effective in recent years.

The approach, in a nutshell, is centered around looking at people, not just their bags or their shoes or their toiletries. There's profiling, sure, but it's profiling based on behavior:

The first layer of actual security that greets travellers at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion International Airport is a roadside check. All drivers are stopped and asked two questions: How are you? Where are you coming from?"Two benign questions. The questions aren't important. The way people act when they answer them is," [transportation security consultant Rafi] Sela said. Officers are looking for nervousness or other signs of "distress" — behavioural profiling.

And as you get deeper into the airport, personnel continue to check you out for signs that you might be about to do something nutty:

You are now in the terminal. As you approach your airline check-in desk, a trained interviewer takes your passport and ticket. They ask a series of questions: Who packed your luggage? Has it left your side?
"The whole time, they are looking into your eyes — which is very embarrassing. But this is one of the ways they figure out if you are suspicious or not. It takes 20, 25 seconds,"

When you finally get to the luggage check:

"First, it's fast — there's almost no line. That's because they're not looking for liquids, they're not looking at your shoes. They're not looking for everything they look for in North America. They just look at you," said Sela. "Even today with the heightened security in North America, they will check your items to death. But they will never look at you, at how you behave. They will never look into your eyes ... and that's how you figure out the bad guys from the good guys."

And here's the kicker: It's faster.

The goal at Ben-Gurion airport is to move fliers from the parking lot to the airport lounge in a maximum of 25 minutes.

So why don't we do it this way? The article cites bureaucratic inertia and resistance to change, which is certainly part of it. But I think there's something more going on.

See, in order to make a system like that work, you've got to hire smart people and you've got to train them well. And if you want people like that, you've got to pay them well.

A smart, trained workforce demanding a decent wage is the last thing people like Jim DeMint want...hell, they might do something worse than blowing up a plane. They might actually join a union.

You get what you pay for.


Jim Hetley said...

I have to say, if you are looking for "smart" from any level or iteration of the US national government, you are looking in the wrong place. It's not built for that . . .

Alan Ralph said...

Sadly, I think that politicians on both sides of the Atlantic will tend to opt for the measures that will be 'seen' to be deterring, whilst involving the least expenditure. Unless it's someone's pet project or the wheels have been sufficiently greased by the lobbyists, in which case our tax money gets piled into another IT monstrosity that ends up costing a fortune and not working.

Of course, they'll go on fact-finding missions (at great expense, of course) to learn best practices... then invariably carry on down the same furrow as before...

I'll shut up now. :P

Mark Terry said...

Another thing they do is have you check your carry-on bag at the desk, then they search it thoroughly, then you pick it up again at the terminal when you board the plane. But keep in mind that Israel essentially has a single major airport and a government-run airline. There are issues of scale involved.

JD Rhoades said...

There are issues of scale involved.

Mark, that's a point. But how hard would it be to tell the TSA people you've already got in place to look up once in a while, and train them what they need to be looking for? I honestly don't know how smart most of the TSA people I've met have been, because they barely interact at all. But it seems to me it would be possible, though maybe not easy, to find the smart ones, cull the dumb ones, and teach them, for example, to look for people who are fidgety, nervous, constantly mumbling "Allahu Akbar," etc.

Rae said...

Really interesting article.

I've thought for a long time that everyone should be required to go to the ticket counter to get their boarding pass, whether or not they're checking luggage. It would allow for the eye contact you're talking about, and could red-flag the people who displayed the wrong sort of behavior. It would require reconfiguring the ticket counters, and perhaps supplementing airline staff with TSA people, but it might be workable.

To Mark's point about scalability, it seems to me that the model itself is scalable, but the challenge is in the staffing - you have to have good people doing the hiring and training of more good people, and that's really hard to do, as we've seen.

Kate Hathway said...

The educational systems are probably so different, especially in sizes of classrooms and teacher expectations (both theirs of their students, and their employers of them), that even if the TSA paid well, the potential labor pool of truly trainable/qualified people wouldn't be there. Add in that standards are so different, from school to school in each state and each state's schools from another, there would need to be training schools all over to get all the needed staff on the same page. Since TSA is a Federal thing, I doubt this could even funded, in any time frame in the foreseeable future.

Madam Backslash said...

But they will never look at you, at how you behave. They will never look into your eyes ... and that's how you figure out the bad guys from the good guys."

And some non-neurotypical people (like me, and like my friends and nephew on the autistic spectrum) find eye contact threatening and will avoid it as much as we can. So by the Israelis' lights I get flagged as a "bad guy". Hopefully they have other behavioural clues to follow than just that one.

JD Rhoades said...

MB: you make a good point, and my understanding is that they do have other cues. But failure to make eye contact doesn't mean you don't fly; it means they start looking at you more closely. Hopefully, that closer look would give them a clue that the "nervous" behavior is neurological in origin and not a result of evil intent.