Crowdsourcing a real-time solution to air terrorism

At 09:28 on the morning of September 11, 2001, a Lebanese born engineering student named Ziad Jarrah and three “muscle” hijackers started moving the passengers of flight 93 to the rear of the plane and assaulting the cockpit of flight 93.  Flights 11 and 175 had already crashed into the world trade center and flight 77 was within minutes of crashing into the Pentagon.

Two minutes after the hijacking started, passengers and crew started making phone calls to officials and family members using GTE Airphones and cellphones. A total of 35 airphone calls and two cellphone calls were made. 27 minutes later, the passengers had determined that flight 93 was a suicide mission, had voted to rush the hijackers and went to work taking back the plane.

On Christmass day this year, Jasper Schuringa, a Dutch passenger on Northwest flight 253, ran forward and tackled Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab as he was attempting to detonate 80 grams of PETN, the active ingredient in plastic explosives.

The passengers on these flights are lauded as heroes, but their actions have not been acknowledged by policy changes in the TSA and other security agencies around the world. On any flight that is the victim of a terrorist attack or hijacking, the vast majority of the passengers on the flight are capable “good-guys” that are also highly motivated to prevent the attack from succeeding. Yet the TSA continues to treat passengers as self-loading cargo that may harbor a terrorist.

In the online world we have been using the wisdom of crowds for years to determine what is good and what is bad. Google uses it to filter spam by having the millions of GMail users report spam messages and filtering out messages from sources reported frequently. My company, Feedjit, uses the wisdom of more than a million visitors monthly to filter out adult content and web spam from our site. Reddit, Slashdot.org, Digg, SumbleUpon and many other websites use crowd wisdom to expose the best of the web and to filter out malicious attempts to game the system.

Crowds are smart and most of the people in a crowd are good and are willing to help. Airline security agencies can harness this wisdom and this willingness to help by first acknowledging that it exists. Then implementing a few simple policy changes.

  1. Give passengers a way to quickly and discreetly report suspicious activity to officials, both before boarding and during the flight. A button that simply reports suspicious activity within a 3 passenger radius may be all that’s needed.
  2. Give crew a way to constantly monitor an aggregation of these reports in real-time and develop response policies depending on the severity or intensity of the reports about an individual.
  3. Encourage passengers to engage their fellow passengers in conversation, but not in the context of preventing terrorism. For example: Include a simple statement during the pre-flight briefing of: “Northwest airlines passengers are known for their friendliness in the skies and many of us traveling to and from far off destinations. We encourage our passengers to compare travel notes and to get to know each other….etc..etc…”

With these simple changes, you have now created an on-board distributed intelligence gathering network that is reporting back to a central authority in real-time.

With these changes the recent Christmass day attack may have played out as follows:

  1. A passenger sitting next to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tries to engage him in polite conversation and discoveres he can’t speak a word of english.
  2. The passenger has the opportunity to get a good look at Umar and notices he is sweating and his hands are shaking.
  3. The passenger discreetly hits a button in their arm-rest alerting flight attendants to something suspicious.
  4. The passenger catches the eye of a woman in the isle seat and she notices it too and hits her button.
  5. Flight attendants come over and ask Umar if he’s feeling OK and would like a drink of water.
  6. Flight attendants verify that Umar is exhibiting symptoms of someone who is under extreme stress.
  7. Flight attendants start a protocol of closely monitoring the passenger’s behavior by always having someone within 15 ft.
  8. When Umar starts to rise to go to the toilet, flight attendants request that he come to the back of the plane so that they can do a cursory body search before he enters the toilet.
  9. Flight attendants discover the PETN and the story has a very different ending.

The TSA can start by acknowledging that a vast untapped human intelligence resource exists on every flight. Then change their policy approach from “every passenger could be a terrorist” to “Only one in a million passengers are a potential terrorist and everyone else on the flight is smart, capable and highly motivated to prevent terrorism on their flight.”