Risk profiling software tackles the terrorist threat
- 21 November 2012
- From the section Technology
The UK branch of an American company has developed a hi-tech software programme it believes can help detect and prevent potentially dangerous passengers and cargo entering the UK using the technique known as "risk profiling".
Executives at SAS Software, based in Buckinghamshire, say the use of such a programme could well have prevented the so-called "underpants bomber" being able to board a flight to Detroit in 2009 with explosives sewn into his underwear.
So, what exactly is risk profiling and can it really reduce the risk of international terrorism?
Risk profiling is a controversial topic. It means identifying a person or group of people who are more likely to act in a certain way than the rest of the population, based on an analysis of their background and past behaviour.
When it comes to airline security, some believe this makes perfect sense.
Why, for example, hold up the queue at immigration to cross question or search the proverbial "little old lady" who is statistically less likely to be a threat than the 24-year old male flying in from a country with security problems?
Others, though, say this smacks of prejudice and would inevitably lead to unacceptable racial or religious profiling - singling out someone because, say, they happen to be Muslim or born in Yemen.
SAS Software, a British-based company with an annual global turnover of £1.7bn and which has absolutely nothing to do with the British Army's Special Air Service, stress that their software is "blind" to such prejudices.
Joanne Taylor, the company's director of public security, says: "The risk profiling utilises lots and lots of different variables. Every piece of data available has nothing to do with racial profiling in its own right or where they happen to have come from.
"It's the same techniques that are used by banks or insurance companies to determine whether you should be given a mortgage; are you a high risk of defaulting?"
The programme works by feeding in data about passengers or cargo, including the Advanced Passenger Information (API) that airlines heading to Britain are obliged to send to the UK Border Agency (UKBA) at "wheels up" - the exact moment the aircraft lifts off from the airport of departure.
Additional information could include a combination of factors, like whether the passenger paid for their ticket in cash, or if they have ever been on a watch list or have recently spent time in a country with a known security problem.
The data is then analysed to produce a schematic read-out for immigration officials that shows the risk profile for every single passenger on an incoming flight, seat by seat, high risk to low risk.
It may sound a bit Orwellian - a further example of state surveillance in a country already awash with CCTV cameras and where some senior intelligence officials are pushing to have access to everyone's internet traffic.
So is this sort of risk profiling justified? Do the results justify the means?
Last year, a pilot scheme for similar "intelligence-led border controls" was run, after which Damian Green, the Immigration Minister, concluded: "It is early intelligence, before people get on a plane, that will keep our borders more secure. I want to export our borders so they start at airports around the world."
Ian Manocha, vice president at SAS Software, says the principle works just as much for cargo as it does for passengers.
He says South Korean Customs, which have bought the programme, report a 20% higher detection rate of illegal goods.
"Border agencies have got vast amounts of information available to them that they are not fully exploiting," says Mr Manocha.
"They have to make decisions about freight coming into the country and looking for high risk scenarios.
"Whether it be a bomb threat or potentially a more mundane and routine challenge. For example passage of contraband cargo, drugs or human trafficking.
"All of these challenges are a needle in the haystack problem. And smart technology can really get to find that needle in the haystack that much quicker".
So could such a programme have prevented the printer ink toner-cartridge bombs being placed on a plane from Yemen bound for the US in 2010?
Probably not, admits Mr Manocha, as that plot was stopped not by technology but by a tip-off from a human informant inside Al-Qaeda in Yemen.
But when asked if it would have stopped Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian "underpants bomber", from boarding his flight to Detroit with hidden explosives next to his body in 2009, Peter Snelling, the company's principal technical consultant, says: "I think it's fairly confident to say that yes we would have matched it up."
Risk profiling programmes are definitely not to everyone's liking.
They also carry an inherent danger that innocent individuals could be pulled over and questioned, searched and delayed, although the programmes' proponents would argue they help reduce this risk by feeding in a wide range of known facts.
But whether we are aware of them or not, risk profiling programmes are already in use all over the world and with the volume of air traffic set to expand even further, they look set to become an ever more common part of the invisible scenery around us.