Innovations: Preempting threats

WeCU identifies intent to harm others based on physiological changes in the would-be perpetrator.

airport security 88 248 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
airport security 88 248
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The presentation opens with a question: What if a threat could be detected before it has a chance to complete its mission? A powerful image ensues of live footage rolling backward in slow motion. In the imaginary scenario, a clock turns back and one of the most devastating terrorist attacks of all time never happens. The Twin Towers in New York City go from being impacted by jumbo jets - their shattering glass frames exploding into flames - to a narrative in which they return to their original structural soundness. As the flames disappear and the glass returns to its proper place along the sides of the buildings, a new slide pops up. The setting sun shines on the former skyline of New York. The original supposition is answered by the following words: Actually, it can. This ability to detect potential threats defines the innovative new technology of WeCU. The Israeli company is a collaboration among leading experts in diverse fields, including Zipora (Zipi) Alster, a behavioral scientist; CEO Ehud Givon, an experienced engineer who worked in security for many years before founding WeCU; Shlomo Breznitz, a psychology professor who specializes in stress response research; and Dr. Boaz Ganor, the founder and executive director of the International Institute for Counterterrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. For the last six years, the team has been developing a technology that promises to change the future of security. According to Givon, the idea was hatched during one of the most devastating periods of terrorist attacks the country has ever experienced. "DO YOU remember the wave of suicide bombers here in 2003?" he asks. I nod, thinking back to the time when people all over the country were terrified to leave the house as dozens of civilians were being killed in random attacks in bars, clubs, restaurants, buses, markets and malls. "This is one of the things that prompted us into action. The Americans described what we are doing as 'finding the bomber and not the bomb.' This shift makes all the difference." In other words, rather than looking for explosive devices in shoes, belts, water bottles, purses and lighters, WeCU offers a noninvasive alternative that can detect physiological changes in a person without the need for obvious sensors. Unlike polygraphs or biometric systems that put individuals under emotional pressure, WeCU's technology is not about detecting lies or looking for people who are carrying suspicious objects or under stress. In less than a minute, the WeCU system scans people to determine their intentions to carry out terrorist attacks or criminal activity. "The stimuli to which people are exposed depend upon what the security forces in that arena are looking for," says Givon. If it's a Hamas operative, showing symbols from that organization will evoke an emotional, cognitive reaction that can be detected. "We're not talking about subliminal messages here. People will see the stimuli and there will be signs saying that detection systems looking for malicious intent are in place." However, he notes that people will still not know when, where or how these detection systems are working. That is part of the patented technology that the company is not prepared to reveal. "Everyone would like to know how we are doing this, but that is our secret." Although the technology also applies to banks, security firms, government agencies and military bases that could greatly benefit from random checks on their employees to avoid internal threats, it is perhaps most easily understood within the context of airport security. By presenting passengers with specific stimuli during the check-in process, WeCU sensors can look for abnormal biometric reactions, such as perspiration, retina movement and increased heart rates. Ultimately, this allows for a sophisticated layer of added security that separates potential threats from innocent passengers. Because there are no sensors that need to physically make contact with the body or other obvious impositions, the system also has advantages for human rights. It eliminates the need for profiling according to age, gender, religion or race. Everyone is exposed to the same stimuli, but only those who are directly connected to a threat will have a detectable reaction. IN A concrete example, Givon points to a silver tray full of sugar on the table. "If I hold up this yellow packet, does it mean anything to you?" he asks. "Because you are not connected to this in any way and you don't use it at home and may not even know what it is, you will not react to it." By the same token, if a photograph of one of my family flashed across his computer screen, I would react. The technology is based on well-known doctrines from the behavioral sciences, but to perfect their methodology, the team has been doing their own research for years. Awarded two grants from the Transportation Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security in the United States, they were also invited to present their technology at a summit on Israeli innovations that will change the future. Last year, the company raised $3 million from investors and its first product is slated to hit the market in three months. "It sounds like science fiction," says Givon with a mischievous smile. "But I can assure you that the technology is very real. We have accuracy rates that are higher than 95 percent." Although we may still be years away from not having to walk through those cumbersome and annoying metal detectors with our shoes off, our water bottles reluctantly thrown into the nearest trash bin and our belts and jewelry carefully placed into plastic bins, WeCU certainly provides hope that security is moving in the right direction.