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,, 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.”

17 thoughts on “Crowdsourcing a real-time solution to air terrorism

  1. Great example how the TSA’s organizational paradigm and how that might be flipped on its head for better results. More so, a great example of how in-flight operations ought to be policing their own safety and that of passengers, rather than making and collecting trash.

    What if an airline came out saying that they have fully trained aircrews and staff that can handle close quarters battle? If it was real, I would buy a ticket on that plane every day, knowing that the TSA won’t protect me, but the company I am flying with will (and so will my fellow passengers).

  2. Hi Mark.

    interesting topic. however i must point out that “Wisdom of the Crowd” refers to the collective opinion of a group and not the opinion of the individual within the group. As you rightly stated there are many good people “in a crowd”. Good – being an opinion within the collective does not imply that the crowd is good.

    Personally I think the crowd is stupid. The collective psyche of a crowd is manufactured through the media. In addition, most of the “good” that the crowd agree with is based on the consumption of manufactured goods and emotion.

    The primary reason why I don’t think your policy would work is for the same reason it is in place. The current policy is based on the “fear of the crowd” which has been manufacture in the media. Should individuals start to “think” and contribute to the policy they might also question the rational. Should the rational not “hold water” then the policy would be questioned and hence security companies would fail to have this level of control over the crowd. Bla, Bla, Bla…

    Crowds work to a certain level but individuals change things. The greater question should not be on increased security but the demolishing the barriers and integration societies. Again, bla, bla, bla…

    Anyway, Mark, thanks for kicking the topic in the air. I think your blog (and provocation 🙂 )is great to enable people to talk/communicate and engage. This has much more value to global security than a stupid logical machine at a long queue of agitated crowd.

  3. Okay… I’m going to assume an off-day otherwise there is a whole bunch of generalisations about the world that just don’t work.

    Let us suppose I get a flight from Hong Kong to Seattle for e.g. are all Cantonese people terrorists ? I’ve met people in the US who don’t speak English. Are they bad ?

    The irony is the tag “wisdom of crowds”. Crowds are stupid. That’s why they are crowds, they push and bumble along a nucleus of motivation that has no accountability, so you never know if it is right or wrong.

    Just because a load of people do something doesn’t mean it’s right, which is why a court will always be used rather then public opinion and why saying “but everyone else did it” is not a defence.

  4. Well uhm what you been smoking, You’ve had better day’s with posting stuff.

    This is not it.

    Some people don’t want to die meaningless certainly by act of terrorism which put the fear in us. Some rather die by trying having seen and acknowledge the fact rather then sit like sheep to act. And its this fear that makes people reckless we don’t want that.

    Its a government task first making a program that has rules and safety measure to act on and guarantee checked with and by company’s(government or private) who give security service with accurate trained personal on places where threats like this may happen.

    Chaos is the last thing we need. Its the same with ambulance going through traffic with sirens and lights you don’t prevent these guy’s of doing there job or reaching there destination.

    This post raise difficult questions thinking about regulating stuff on the web is one thing reality about this other another.

  5. When I read Mark’s original post I agreed strongly. I also agree with Brian and Angelo (they provide other perspectives on the same picture), but I want to re-iterate one thing Mark said: That there are millions of good people for each terrorist.

    Once the new security measures tipped me off to how easy terrorism /had been/ (and to some degree still is) I began to realize that scarcely anyone wants to be a terrorist. Surely this is in our favor.

  6. “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.”

    Seeing as he studied at an English university for three years (and went to an English speaking high school before that) I imagine he’d probably do OK at that point.

  7. I don’t know if policy is the answer. People have a right to be concerned for their own safety. Those that don’t exercise that right to influence their environment are forced to react to it. Not reacting is choosing not to act. You are right to say this thing happens spontaneously. An emergent, self-organizing system.

    Smart, observant individuals stop violence, not mandated heroism or suspicion.

    Overall, thanks for the thoughts.

  8. This approach is an idealistic fairy tale and bespeaks basic stupidity paired with lack of thoughtful analysis. I’d like to poke a few holes into it, mostly by offering myself as a sample airline customer:

    I hate flying; I’m a fat person and it’s stressful for me to spend a long time motionless in a tiny space. I’m bored by waiting, I’m often disgusted by my fellow travelers, I frequently suffer a headache. I sweat, I may tremble. If any well-meaning mother-complexed matron tries to engage me in conversation I’ll tell her to get out of my face, and I’ll be rude if necessary. I sometimes like to put a blanket in my lap. All that distinguishes me from an Arab terrorist is that I speak English fluently and will get completely blasted if offered free or cheap alcohol.

    Needless to say, I’d constantly be surrounded by button pushers if this came to pass. The system would be swamped with false positives from the patriotic busybodies in attendance. Chances are, I’d attract attention away from any bona fide terrorists on my flight. Airline personnel would stop taking button pushes seriously.

    Yes, if peoples’ lives are directly threatened then a few of them may end up doing the right thing if only to save their sorry asses. But relying on travelers to routinely assist in terrorist detection is horribly naive. Passengers are indeed like self-loading cargo, only much more stupid. If your average American isn’t stupid, who voted for Bush in 2004?

    Any other bright ideas?

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