What can you tell from the blink of an eye? Behavioural analysis myths debunked

Nina Brooks by Nina Brooks | Jul 4, 2019

When you think of airport security, x-ray machines, and pat-downs spring to mind. But an additional layer of security that has always been controversial is behavioural analysis – looking at the way someone behaves to determine if they might pose a threat. The Behavioural Analysis 2019 conference, hosted in May in Minneapolis by Green Light Limited, provided a fascinating array of different views on behavioural analysis from academics, law enforcement specialists, and professional security practitioners. Opinions are quite polarized – many people sit firmly in one camp or the other – either believing it’s vital for security or that there is no value in it at all. But it’s not that simple.

Behavioural analysis

What isn’t

It’s a popular belief that liars exhibit behaviours that are different from people who are telling the truth. Some well-known ideas are that liars always look up to the left, that fidgeting and sweating may be signs of dishonesty, that there are micro expressions that give the game away. But there is little or no scientific evidence or research to indicate that such non-verbal cues can be linked with deception, and a very low success rate in correct identification of deceptive non-verbal cues.  So unfortunately, as fun as it might be to try to spot these clues or to make a TV show about master detectives, this isn’t really what behaviour detection is about.

What it is

People in usual everyday life conform to some sort of norm  behaviour. Travellers going on vacation usually bring some luggage. Families usually try to sit together. People usually speak the same language as their travelling companions. People in airports may look dazed and confused, but they usually don’t hang around in one area for several hours looking at staff and security cameras.

What behavioural analysis in the airport tries to do is look for behaviours outside of the “normal”. This is nothing to do with race or religion or physical appearance, rather applying common sense to alert security personnel to take a second look at a passenger, a member of staff or a visitor to the airport.

It’s useful to consider what we think of as “behaviour” in this context.  There are facial, verbal and physical cues – changes that may or may not indicate deception. But there are more concrete indicators, especially when coupled with questioning techniques.  If a passenger holds a ticket purchased at the last minute with cash and struggles to explain where they are going and why, perhaps they were bought the ticket by a family member and are just nervous about answering questions – but it may warrant some further examination.  If a member of staff spends a disproportionate amount of time in an area of the airport where they don’t usually work or takes an interest in a job that isn’t theirs, there may be a perfectly good reason. But it makes sense to find out.

One of the challenges is to set the baseline. How does a “normal” passenger behave? What’s “normal” for a contractor working on the airside? Airport, airline, and security staff see millions of people per week, and they, perhaps unconsciously, know what to expect.  Ask a law enforcement officer if they can detect suspicious behavior – perhaps they can’t put a finger on what it is, but they have enough experience to be able to raise a flag.

Where it’s useful

Aviation security is all about taking a layered approach. It starts with intelligence, and analysis of data. Then, at the airport, detection techniques are bought into play such as x-ray screening, body scanners, and metal detectors. An additional layer might be police patrols or explosive detection dogs. But these detection techniques all focus on finding a prohibited item, rather than a person with ill intent. Employing behaviour analysis, including questioning and analysis of behaviour patterns can provide an additional layer that takes a very different approach.

Techniques can be applied in public areas, to passengers throughout their journey and to staff to help identify insider threat. A tight-knit community and a security culture to encourage staff and passengers to report suspicious behaviour can provide an airport with a huge amount of security resource.

Some of those detection techniques can also be useful in triggering behaviours – visible security patrols and detection dogs can cause a nervous reaction for many different reasons, but they can provide a useful point of interaction where behaviour can be observed. 

The role of technology

An emerging concept is the use of intelligent surveillance cameras that can identify suspicious activities. It is very early days for this technology and it has yet to be proven; however, we are starting to see trials using avatars for customs interviews, for example, which can help to facilitate passengers while employing artificial intelligence to analyse responses. Identifying patterns such as individuals loitering in a specific area may also be useful, as well as analysis of entries and exits by airport pass holders. Naturally, privacy and human rights issues need to be considered very carefully.

Analysis of online behaviour can also be a useful tool. It is well known that social media is used extensively by bad actors to communicate with each other and there are many websites promoting extremist material that are available. This provides a valuable tool to the intelligence community in identifying potential threats, but may also be used by security teams to monitor online activity that mentions the airport or its staff.

It is also important to note that if an individual is flagged, either by a member of staff, a member of the public or through the use of technology, it is not automatically assumed that there is an issue – only a trained security, customs or immigration officer can make that assessment.  A proportionate and timely response is absolutely vital, whether it is to ask for a second opinion, employ some questioning techniques, or recommend additional screening.

Does behavioural analysis work?

There are wide ranging opinions on the efficacy of behavioural analysis. One of the challenges is that it is difficult to test. X-ray operators can be subject to covert testing to ensure that prohibited items are identified, but it is more difficult to employ an actor to genuinely act in a suspicious manner. Suffice to say that there are numerous examples of behaviour detection being successful in detecting crime, illegal immigration, human trafficking, and smuggling. Historically, if the benefits all appear to be toward addressing criminal activities, this can make it difficult for aviation security teams to justify investment. However, if you consider an act of unlawful interference to be on that same criminal scale, then it would surely be a valuable addition to security. A joined-up approach between security, customs, immigration, and law enforcement can also benefit all parties and help to manage resource needs.

Airport security at ACI World

ACI World promotes a strong security culture as one of the key elements of a good security regime. In our best practices on landside security and insider threat, and in all of our training, we recommend a layered approach to security which includes a reporting culture and accountability of all staff. Behavioural analysis can also contribute to risk-based differentiation of passengers. Our Smart Security guidance includes some ideas for using behaviour analysis as one of the methods of assessing risk.

We also provide a professional certification in behavioural analysis and questioning techniques, employing experts in the field to deliver practical courses for airports and other stakeholders.

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Nina Brooks

Nina Brooks

Director, Security, Facilitation and IT, ACI World
Nina provides guidance and support to the airport community, represents airports interests with regulators, and encourages industry collaboration to identify improvements in passenger processes and the overall travel experience while promoting security at all touchpoints of the journey. She has a background in IT as well as extensive experience in facilitation and security for both airlines and airports, having worked at Virgin Atlantic, IATA and at Intervistas Consulting. Nina is the official observer to the AVSEC and Facilitation Panels at ICAO, is on the editorial board for Aviation Security International and teaches Aviation Security at McGill University in Montreal.
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