Israel startup uses behavioral science to identify terrorists
WeCU uses an automated system of biometric sensors to detect people with mayhem on their minds.
By Guy Grimland
The wave of suicide bombings that swept over Israel in 2003 pushed the founders of WeCu Technologies into searching for a way to identify terrorists before they take action.
Quietly, even stealthily, this unknown company has been working for five years now on one of the more interesting technological innovations to be created in these parts.
WeCU ("We see you," in case you are unaccustomed to SMS-speak) promises an automated system to detect people with mayhem on their minds. The system integrates methods and doctrines from the behavioral sciences with biometric sensors.
According to the company's founders, in under a minute it can screen an individual, without his or her knowledge or cooperation and without interfering with routine activities, and disclose intentions to carry out criminal or terror activity. It can identify subjects who are not carrying any suspicious objects, do not demonstrate any suspicious behavior, do not fit into a predefined social or other profile and do not arouse any suspicion.
Unlike systems currently in use, such as polygraphs or biometric systems based on identifying an individual under emotional pressure, WeCU does not attempt to determine whether the subject is lying, concealing information, under stress or feeling guilty. Instead, it seeks to identify concealed intentions by uncovering an associative connection between the subjects and defined threats.
Guilt by association
It may sound like science fiction, but the people behind the system are known to be more involved in science fact. The company founders include Prof. Shlomo Breznitz, a professor of psychology whose research specialization is stress situations (and who is also a former Knesset member from Kadima); Dr. Boaz Ganor, founder and executive director of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya; WeCU CEO Ehud Givon; and Zipora (Zipi) Alster, an expert in the behavioral sciences. Until recently, the company underwrote its activities on its own, but recently a private investor stepped in with an injection of $3 million.
How does it work? Givon explains: "The technology is patented. We take advantage of human characteristics, according to which when a person intends to carry out a particular activity or has a great acquaintance or involvement with a particular activity, he carries with him information and feelings that are associated with the subject or activity. In effect, his brain creates a collection of associations that are relevant to the subject.
"When this person is exposed to stimuli targeted at these associations - such as a picture of a partner to the activity, items from the scene of a crime that he carried out, the symbol of the organization in whose name he is acting or a code word - he will respond emotionally and cognitively to these stimuli. The response is expressed with a number of very subtle physiological and behavioral changes during the exposure to the stimulus," Givon said.
He noted that in an individual who has not built up such associations, the stimuli will not elicit a significant response.
Fitting the threat
Givon points out that the bank of stimuli included in the system is varied and unpredictable: "Even a skilled, well-practiced suspect who is aware of the system and who tries to prepare for the screening cannot know where the stimuli will come from and how they will appear."
The system consists of three components: Hidden biometric sensors that measure the subject remotely or during random contact; a system that displays the stimuli; and a computerized data analysis and decision-making system that operates in real time.
The system has been demonstrated to governmental authorities in Israel, the United States and Germany. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security showed particular interest in WeCU. Two research grants have been given to the system, in a relatively rare show of support for the development.
The developers say that mass production of the system is expected within two and a half years. Each unit is expected to cost tens of thousands of dollars.