TrendThe day of smart CCTV nears

Published 9 July 2007

Developments in observational techniques, when married with remote surveillance cameras, will allow CCTVs not only to identify perpatrators after the fact, but identify them before they commit the terrorist or criminal act

First-generation CCTVs are good at one thing: by capturing reams and reams of visual images, they allow police to identify the perpetrators of a terrorist act or a crime. Trouble is, such identification takes place after the crime or terorist act has been committed. Can CCTVs be used to detect a terrorist act before it takes place, and it this way alert security personal in time to intefvene and prevent the act? Paul Ekman, an emeritus psychology professor, says it is possible to do so.

He offers an analysis of a controversial security program known as SPOT, for Screening Passengers by Observational Techniques, launched by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). He argues that “it would be negligent not to use [SPOT] in the search for terrorists. Along with luggage checks, radar screening, bomb-sniffing dogs and the rest of our security arsenal, observational techniques can help reduce risks — and potentially prevent another deadly assault like the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.”

SPOT was launched two years ago by TSA at fourteen U.S. airports, including Washington’s Dulles International. It is the first attempt to use observational techniques as part of the U.S. security approach. The approch is promising. Preliminary findings show that the overwhelming number of those who are taken out of line and detained for further investigation were intending to commit or had committed some kind of wrongdoing: They were wanted criminals, drug smugglers, money smugglers, illegal immigrants, and a few were suspected terrorists.

SPOTworks this way: Officers, working in pairs stand off to the side, scanning passengers at a security checkpoint for signs of any behaviors on the officers’ checklist, such as repeated patting of the chest — which might mean that a bomb is strapped too tightly under a person’s jacket — or a micro-expression. The items on the SPOT checklist are culled from law enforcement experience and research on deception and demeanor. Ekman, who stuied deceptive behavior for four decades, is the developer of Facial Action Coding System (FACS), which is a catalogue of every conceivable facial expression. He writes that once such expressions are identified, people can be quickly trained to recognize them as they occur. The facial expressions Ekman and his collaborators identified allowed them correctly to determine who was lying 70 percent of the time; when the rest of demeanor is added, it pushes accuracy close to 100 percent.

Which brings us back to CCTVs. “Tools like [deception recognition] are indispensable to the future of airport security, and more are coming,” writes Ekman. “Within the next year or two, maybe sooner, it will be possible to program surveillance cameras hooked to computers that spit out FACS data to identify anyone whose facial expressions are different from the previous two dozen people in line.” CCTVs will not stop at evaluating facial expression to identify intent. The day is not far when remote surveillance devices may identify anyone whose blood pressure and heart rate are much higher than those of the previous two dozen people.

Observational techniques are not a substitute for all the other techniques we now use to catch would-be terrorists,” Ekman concludes. “But they add another layer to transportation security. They are now being used at fewer than one in 10 major U.S. airports. We need to use them everywhere.”