Friday, February 5, 2010

Is That a Bomb in Your Pants or are You Just Happy To See Me?

There was a lot of uproar over the "Underpants Bomber" in the days after Christmas. The talking heads on the Sunday morning shows pounded the TSA hard and wanted to know how this guy got through. It isn't possible to point a finger at one reason. Tons of small mistakes led to the security breach. My sense is that most people feel airport security is ineffective.

Recent research backs that feeling up. A test at O'Hare found that TSA agents only found 60-75% of planted guns, knives and bombs (all fake of course). It's nearly 10 years after 9/11 and we're still not very good at airport security. Why? Well, according to research by Harvard Prof. Jeremy Wolfe, it turns out that human brains really suck at visually searching for rare events. When an item shows up only 2% of the time, which is the frequency of contraband in luggage, people miss the item 30% of the time. However, if the item appears 50% of the time, people miss the item 7% of the time.

One solution to the problem would be to insert staged contraband images into the image feeds so that 50% of the images contain a gun, knife or bomb. If TSA had done this last year, they would have intercepted 4,504,455 more prohibited items (most of it probably 60z bottles of hair gel).

At ReTel, we've experimented with similar techniques to improve the visual search capabilities of our auditors. Understanding the way the brain sees is a big part of successfully leveraging the crowd to analyze video.