On the subject of people noticing and reporting suspicious actions, I have been espousing two views that some find contradictory. One, we are all safer if police, guards, security screeners, and the like ignore traditional profiling and instead pay attention to people acting hinky: not right. And two, if we encourage people to contact the authorities every time they see something suspicious, we’re going to waste our time chasing false alarms: foreigners whose customs are different, people who are disliked by someone, and so on.
The key difference is expertise. People trained to be alert for something hinky will do much better than any profiler, but people who have no idea what to look for will do no better than random.
Here’s a story that illustrates this: Last week, a student at the Rochester Institute of Technology was arrested with two illegal assault weapons and 320 rounds of ammunition in his dorm room and car:
The discovery of the weapons was made only by chance. A conference center worker who served in the military was walking past Hackenburg’s dorm room. The door was shut, but the worker heard the all-too-familiar racking sound of a weapon, said the center’s director Bill Gunther.
Notice how expertise made the difference. The “conference center worker” had the right knowledge to recognize the sound and to understand that it was out of place in the environment he heard it. He wasn’t primed to be on the lookout for suspicious people and things; his trained awareness kicked in automatically. He recognized hinky, and he acted on that recognition. A random person simply can’t do that; he won’t recognize hinky when he sees it. He’ll report imams for praying, a neighbor he’s pissed at, or people at random. He’ll see an English professor recycling paper, and report a Middle-Eastern-looking man leaving a box on sidewalk.
We all have some experience with this. Each of us has some expertise in some topic, and will occasionally recognize that something is wrong even though we can’t fully explain what or why. An architect might feel that way about a particular structure; an artist might feel that way about a particular painting. I might look at a cryptographic system and intuitively know something is wrong with it, well before I figure out exactly what. Those are all examples of a subliminal recognition that something is hinky — in our particular domain of expertise.
Good security people have the knowledge, skill, and experience to do that in security situations. It’s the difference between a good security person and an amateur.
This is why behavioral assessment profiling is a good idea, while the Terrorist Information and Prevention System (TIPS) isn’t. This is why training truckers to look out for suspicious things on the highways is a good idea, while a vague list of things to watch out for isn’t. It’s why this Israeli driver recognized a passenger as a suicide bomber, while an American driver probably wouldn’t.
This kind of thing isn’t easy to train. (Much has been written about it, though; Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink discusses this in detail.) You can’t learn it from watching a seven-minute video. But the more we focus on this — the more we stop wasting our airport security resources on screeners who confiscate rocks and snow globes, and instead focus them on well-trained screeners walking through the airport looking for hinky — the more secure we will be.
EDITED TO ADD (4/26): Jim Harper makes an important clarification.
Posted on April 26, 2007 at 5:43 AM •