IDEAS Factory - Detecting Terrorist Activities: Shades of Grey - Towards a Science of Interventions for Eliciting and Detecting Notable Behaviours

Lead Research Organisation: Swansea University
Department Name: College of Science


The Shades of Grey (SoG) research project is designed in response to a pressing need for novel surveillance interventions that elicit robust, reliable and usable indicators of notable behaviours in public areas and ports of entry. From a research perspective, this translates into a need for an active research paradigm to detect notable behaviours more effectively: a science of interventions. The project draws upon expertise from behavioural psychology, social and physical sciences, and engineering to define, design, and deliver a science of interventions aimed at improving our understanding of the relationship between environmental and interpersonal stimuli and behavioural responses. Using scientific principles, this will be brought about via the design of controlled laboratory and field experiments to empirically test the effectiveness of a suite of interventions that are designed to aid practical, real-time identification of factors (and combinations thereof) that aid detection of notable behaviours. This project aims to address these needs in three ways. First, it aims to develop a sophisticated palate of interventions that will amplify the signal-to-noise ratios of notable to normal activities. This is based on the premise that nuanced manipulations of social or physical contexts will render intent more visible by eliciting particular responses from individuals. This will address the limitations of passive interventions by enabling intent to become more conspicuous and, by encouraging self-selection, reduce the potential for false positives whilst overcoming the potential social costs of many actuarial profiling models. Secondly, most current techniques - such as CCTV - present greatest utility only when reassembling information after incidents. SoG will seek to apply its interventions at an earlier stage, for example, intercepting individuals during anticedent events such as target selection or phases of planning. Addressing current uncertainties surrounding the most appropriate timing and location for interventions, SoG will offer guidance on how interventions link together and become optimized based on robust empirical enquiry. This will assist the optimal allocation of scarce resources by better understanding where and when interventions should take place in order to maximise efficiency. Third, SoG is committed to designing interventions that can map onto and augment exiting strategies and operational environments.

Planned Impact

Attacks by terrorists result in loss of life, cause significant damage to the national and global economies, and contribute to increasing levels of societal fear. This project is designed to create and deliver effective responses to these challenges. It has, moreover, placed great emphasis upon the utilisation of scarce security resources at early stages within the CONTEST UK Counter-Terrorism Strategy. Accordingly, the ultimate beneficiaries of the research are our population and economy. Benefits will come in the form of improved rates of apprehension of terrorist suspects and, in the process, other criminals and suspicious individuals operating in public spaces. These ultimate benefits result, in turn, from having first enabled the overstretched, hard-working security services to be deployed more efficiently and effectively in this important aspect of countering terrorist activity. The project pays especially close attention to the observation that engagement in nefarious activity is not a static phenomenon. Rather, as security services become more adept at identifying particular types of suspicious behaviours, those who engage in suspicious behaviours will modify their techniques. Research will, therefore, be undertaken to review what has been done to date, align that with user needs and knowledge, and build upon it. The current project proposes to deliver a toolkit (including a flexible palette of interventions) to be deployed in a manner that allows users to pick components of it that suit their specific needs. The project's specific focus upon methods to elicit coarse-grained gestures indicative of suspicious behaviours (WP 3a), improving our understanding of the interrelationships between built infrastructure and human activity in open spaces (WP 3b), and the further development and refinement of lie detection theory (WP 3c) promise the dramatically reduce the numbers of false-positive judgements made during the process of surveillance and apprehension of subjects of interest. Government officials who are involved in investigating and preventing crime and terrorism will benefit from this research as we will provide them with surveillance, intervention, and interview protocols that they can use to discriminate between innocents and wrongdoers. Throughout the course of the research project, strong lines of communication between the team and associated and affiliated stakeholders will be guaranteed by WPs 2, 5, and 6, as well as by stakeholder participation in the project's steering group and by their attendance at atleast one meeting of the project team annually. All such meetings will provide updates on progress made, which will provide an ideal forum in which designed interventions can be sanity-checked so as to maximise their in-field utility. The project has also planned a rigorous experimental design in which controlled lab experiments provide a precursor to in-field experiments. This combined approach will help to refine practices ahead of their final delivery to practitioners for field deployment. The Shades of Grey team is interdisciplinary and cohesive and will be able to draw upon differing areas of expertise and backgrounds to create a comprehensive deliverable which is grounded in theory and empirics and designed in consultation with practitioners. As noted in our statement of track records, each of our research team has considerable experience participating in large team projects including those involving engagement with public bodies, government agencies, and security stakeholders, such as Jones's work with SOCA, Dalton's work with the BBC, Eubanks's work with the US government, Fussey's work with the Metropolitan Police, Nikolopolou's work with UNESCO, Stedmon's work at DERA, and Vrij's work with the Dutch and British police and British and American Governments.


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Jundi S (2013) Establishing evidence through undercover and collective intelligence interviewing. in Psychology, Public Policy, and Law

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Martin K (2012) Crafting urban camouflage

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Vrij A (2012) Can I take your picture? Undercover interviewing to detect deception. in Psychology, Public Policy, and Law

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Vrij A (2012) Collective interviewing of suspects. in Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition

Description The work uncovered new ways of observing and interacting with people in public spaces so that the sense of safety and security is enhanced.
Exploitation Route Researchers interested in the science of behavior shaping and analysis can build on this work.
Sectors Creative Economy,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections,Security and Diplomacy

Description The project helped inform practices in public spaces to enhance the sense of security and safety.
First Year Of Impact 2012
Sector Security and Diplomacy
Impact Types Societal