Behavioural Detection: a case study from London Gatwick

Behavioural Detection: a case study from London Gatwick

Airport operators are constantly working to achieve compliance against heavily prescribed security regulations, but what more can be done to protect against the threat as it has evolved today? Andy Palmer discusses how Gatwick Airport has taken a ‘compliance plus’ approach to security through the implementation of its behavioural detection programme.

For some time now aviation security has tended to follow the pattern of introducing new processes or technologies after an incident has prompted a reaction. Whether it’s trace detection or removing liquids from hand baggage, these processes inevitably cause a delay or disruption to passengers’ journeys. However, slowly but surely it is being recognised that there is another option; one which isn’t focused solely on one specific threat, doesn’t cause unnecessary inconvenience to customers and can’t be replaced by a new piece of technology in a couple of years – behavioural detection. People from both inside and outside the security industry seem to make one of two assumptions about the subject: either that all airports do it, or the exact opposite; that nobody does. But what exactly is behavioural detection?

Behavioural detection, analysis, profiling, assessment: with every different name is a different understanding of what actually constitutes behavioural detection. A security briefing or security awareness training, whilst important to a strong security culture, does not provide a behavioural detection capability. Neither can a security operative who claims through experience to be a behavioural detection expert be accepted as such. A true capability is only provided by a dedicated team of experienced behavioural detection officers (BDOs), trained in government recognised, tested and approved behavioural detection techniques and integrated into an operational environment.

“…members of the team work with passenger experience at the forefront of their minds, remembering that people…”

Although we are looking at this subject from an aviation security perspective, it should be recognised that the aviation element is, for all intents and purposes, irrelevant. The process sits just as comfortably in a supermarket, banking institution, tourist attraction or any other environment exposed to threat, be it critical national infrastructure or a crowded place. The purpose of the BDO role is to help keep customers, staff and infrastructure safe by providing an extra layer of security.

When the terrorist attacks in Istanbul and Brussels airports occurred, Gatwick Airport already had an experienced behavioural detection team operating across the airport campus. Having previously recognised the evolving threat and the need to mitigate against it through means other than extending traditional security screening perimeters, it was believed that the best strategy providing mitigation to the landside threat included such a team.

The team was introduced at Gatwick in 2013. Recruited from within the airport security officer population, they were already compliant with Department for Transport level one security training. The officers, who are civilians directly employed and fully funded by the airport, then undertook Passenger Assessment Screening System training. This taught them to observe an area and to understand what ‘normal’ looks like in that particular environment at a specific time. Once they understand what this looks like, any deviation from the norm attracts their attention and they will then look for a set list of behaviours. These are all regular human behaviours, so in order to hold the interest of a BDO they need to be displayed frequently or excessively. It’s also not about jumping on an individual because we caught them picking their nose! The behaviours do not indicate that a person is a terrorist, or even that they’re involved in criminality – they merely suggest to a trained eye that the individual displaying them may be of interest. People are not stopped because of their age, race, gender, religion. Not only is this ethically wrong but it would be to the detriment of the team as they would miss people of genuine interest. Behavioural detection allows for the process to cut through an individual’s own assumptions or perceptions and focus on the facts in front of them. Whilst identifying behaviours is obviously essential, resolving why they are being shown is equally, if not more, important. The team will regularly see people displaying behaviours who are simply nervous flyers, are running late for their flight or had an argument with a loved one.

“…operating across the airport campus and engaging with the wider family of airport staff offers reassurance but also acts as a deterrent to the insider threat….”

Once a BDO identifies behaviour that deviates from the norm, they stop the individual and speak with them. We refer to this as a ‘resolution conversation’ as they want to resolve why that person is displaying the behaviour. There’s no spotlight to shine in people’s eyes, no interrogation, no list of questions to be answered – it is exactly what we call it: a conversation. It is vitally important to us that members of the team work with passenger experience at the forefront of their minds, remembering that people using our airport have chosen to do so and we want them to do so again in the future.

At the end of the conversation the BDOs, who normally work in pairs, will make a decision if they are satisfied that the behaviours were being shown for a legitimate reason; if so, then the individual continues on their way with thanks for their time. Should the team not be satisfied with the reason for the behaviour, or it has become apparent that the person does not have a legitimate reason for their behaviour, then the BDOs will refer them on to one of the control authorities at the airport, such as uniformed police, Border Force or the Counter Terrorism Intelligence Unit. This may be supported by an intelligence report, which is sent directly to the control authority before the BDOs return to look for the next person displaying questionable behaviour.

BDOs come across a diverse range of individuals and situations; anything from taxi touts to persons involved in human trafficking, and theft to hostile reconnaissance. Giving additional training to help BDOs understand and deal with each situation is valuable, and training on topics such as conflict resolution and fraudulent documents helps set the team up for success. Even more important is the need to refrain from setting BDOs quotas or targets to reach in relation to the number of stops or referrals to control authorities. These would simply encourage them to stop people for the sake of it, negating the importance of identifying suspicious behaviours and diluting the quality of referrals to control authorities.

Simultaneous deployments and collaborative work with control authorities are important in ensuring the integration of behavioural detection into the operational environment. Operating across the airport campus and engaging with the wider family of airport staff offers reassurance but also acts as a deterrent to the insider threat. Developed further still, through aforementioned security awareness training, all staff can provide valuable knowledge on the airport and its users.

The deterrent capabilities of behavioural detection can’t be overstated. Whilst distinguishable results are of benefit in boosting team morale and projecting success to the wider business, the stops that result in an unknown outcome or ones that can’t be shared are potentially the greatest successes. Although BDO stops have resulted in many tangible results, such as on-the-spot arrests, it must be recognised that no well-assessed stop is a bad stop. If a person was stopped because their behaviour seemed to deviate from the norm and was then engaged in a resolution conversation, the final outcome should not offer any weight to an opinion of success or not. It is good practice to monitor individual standards to ensure the team are operating as trained whilst offering the required level of customer service. This will also ensure officers adhere to processes and maintain the standards set during their training.

“…no well-assessed stop is a bad stop…”

Further development of a behavioural detection capability should seek to incorporate a security communications strategy. Formed in a subtle manner, this offers reassurance to genuine airport users whilst also deterring those planning hostile activities. We know that even low-level criminals such as taxi touts wanting to target our passengers have discussed avoiding the airport as security was so effective. We count this as a success; if criminals recognise that it’s hard for them to operate here, then the same will go for terrorists.

So are BDOs the answer to all our problems? No, of course not; they cannot guarantee that everyone is screened, and as long as we are dealing with humans there will be always be a certain level of error. However, if you intend to do everything you can to protect your site, staff and the public then BDOs must definitely be on the list of tools to use. Done poorly and you run the risk of upsetting your passengers, unnerving staff and disrupting control authorities, but done well and your site becomes a hostile place for anyone with malicious intent.

Andrew Palmer
Andrew Palmer

Following his time in the British military as a counter terrorism specialist, Andy Palmer went on to spend several years in the immigration field before joining the Gatwick Airport security team where he has become internationally recognised as a subject matter expert on behavioural detection and security awareness. He can be contacted at: