Even the best-trained terrorists will be betrayed by their bodies. That, at least, is what is suggested by the seven years of research behind WeCU Technologies, an Israeli startup that proposes to measure intent by reading physiological parameters and screen out potential threats.
CEO Ehud Givon compares the function of WeCU's detection system with a doctor's diagnosis. The technology is relatively simple: a synthesis of electronic sensors and knowledge gleaned from behavioral studies. During a routine act, such as check-in at an airport kiosk, travelers will be subjected to a near-invisible stimulus that will trigger physiological responses among those who are concealing something. Sensors hidden in the kiosk will pick up the cues and alert security officers. WeCU's boldest claim is that its system can weed out the mal-intentioned from the merely stressed out.
WeCU was conceived in the wake of renewed terror attacks in Israel in 2002, by a consortium of counterterrorism experts, a former parliament member and psychologist, and veterans of Israel's tech scene. And though some U.S. government agencies, including the TSA and the Department of Homeland Security, have pitched in with grant money, the founders have mostly funded it themselves.
Givon emphasizes that WeCU has built a screening system, not a full-body polygraph or an advanced body scanner. It offers no final indictments, nor can it explain why exactly the body is delivering those data, but he insists that it can reliably flag suspect travelers. "You cannot refrain from reacting when you're trying to hide something," he says. "We're not interested in people who are very anxious for other reasons. If all these are false alarms, my system would be useless."
WeCU's system, which has been undergoing testing in Israel for the past six months, will be ready for full deployment within a year. Givon declines to name any clients, but says he's looking for partners in targeted countries to liaise with government agencies. According to the company, the underwear-bomber scare last Christmas forced potential buyers to deal with the prospect of more invasive security measures.
Such steps chill some privacy advocates, and WeCU could spark opposition. The company, whose name doesn't do much to dispel Orwellian-style fears, responds that no records will be kept, though it suggests that officials clarify privacy-rights rules before activating the system.
In any case, WeCU believes that for 99.9% of us, this system will do nothing but ensure a safer, more efficient travel experience. Says Givon: "This will make life much easier for innocent people."
How It Works
1. WeCU's system of sensors takes baseline measurements of the traveler's heart rate, body temperature, and breathing rate.
2. The system then subjects the person to subtle stimuli. While WeCU is reluctant, for security reasons, to provide details, one prompt that it uses for demo purposes is a kiosk check-in screen that asks the traveler to "enter name," but briefly flashes "enter real name." According to WeCU CEO Ehud Givon, most travelers wouldn't respond to the different prompts, but someone who is hiding a true identity would.
3. A sensor measures eye movement and notes any acceleration or flickering in response to stimuli.
4. An infrared camera measures the heat pattern of the blood vessels, gleaning data on temperature and heart rate. The information is compared with the baseline.
5. The system notifies security personnel via flashing lights: Green means go, red is a signal that the subject has failed the stimulus tests, and orange indicates an ambiguous reading.
A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.