The NonVerbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs & Body Language Cues

NonVerbal Surveillance

You can observe a lot by watching. --Lawrence Peter ("Yogi") Berra

Watching and listening1. The act of observing the behavior and body language of persons or groups under suspicion. 2. Systematic observations, openly made as well as covert, conducted in airports, at border crossings, and in other public venues, often for reasons of national security.

Usage. As the threat of international terrorism grows, nonverbal communication plays a vital role in the training of government, military, and law-enforcement personnel. The ability to see danger signs in anomalous behaviors and time patterns, in "intention" movements, clothing signals, abnormal gaze patterns, emotional voice tones, and deception cues--and in seemingly "meaningless" grooming habits, facial expressions, and gestures--is essential to ensuring public security today.

Curiosity. The best observers tend to be those who are naturally curious. They like to know what other people are doing--and why. Moreover, they are able to project themselves, through empathy, into the emotional mindset of those they observe (i.e., they can "get inside" others' heads). Perhaps most importantly, they are able to turn off the verbal dialogue going on inside their own heads long enough to monitor the scene. The best observers rely on their own feelings to ask questions: "Why is that person tense?" "Why do those two make me nervous?"

Elevator scenario. Software has been developed to interpret nonverbal behaviors, captured by closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras, as being normal or abnormal. Staying too long in an elevator, e.g., would be classed as an abnormal time usage which would set off a remote alarm for security workers. Abnormal physical movement in the elevator--e.g., a man assembling a mechanism or opening a suitcase on the floor--also would trigger an alarm.

Facial monitoring. Software enables personnel-identification cameras to recognize faces in airports, ports of entry, government buildings, casinos, and stores. Future software will enable cameras to recognize facial expressions of emotion, as well (see MOTION ENERGY MAP). (N.B.: Research on the human-computer interface [HCI] may result in software for interpreting postures, body movements, and hand gestures.)

A classic example of nonverbal surveillance was the case of Ahmed Ressam, who, presenting himself as "Benni Noris," crossed into Washington State from British Columbia via the Port Angeles ferry. U.S. Customs Today magazine touted the intercept, and praised the customs officers for responding to nonverbal cues.

Ressam's was the last car off the ferryboat, and something nonverbal told inspector Diana M. Dean to take a closer look at him and his vehicle. (Ressam appeared nervous andsweaty [Johnson 2000:B3].) She gave "Noris" a standard U.S. Customs declaration, which he completed, and then asked him to step out of his car. In the words of officers on the case, his hemming (speech hesitations), hawing (fumbling for words), dawdling (taking more time than necessary), and stalling (using delay tactics) drew inspector Mark Johnson's attention.

Ressam finally got out of his car and stood next to Johnson, while a third inspector, Dan Clem, inspected the trunk. When Clem found white powder hidden in the wheel well, Ressam ran away. Inspectors intercepted him as he tried to car-jack a vehicle stopped at a nearby traffic light. It was determined later that Ressam allegedly had ties to terrorist Osama Bin Laden, and that he was carrying highly volatile bomb components in an apparent plan to blow up a major U.S. target (source: U.S. Customs Today2000).

Nervousness I. For years, United Airlines has provided annual training for flight attendants to help them watch closely for unusual behavior and nervous passengers. From thousands of hours of flying, attendants internalize an experiential blueprint for what is "normal," which helps them spot the "abnormal" as well. Anxiety should be carefully monitored at all times, both as a sign of abnormal intentions (e.g., in terrorists), and as a contributing factor which may lead to abnormal behavior (by non-terrorists) in the cabin.

Nervousness II. In his report to the FBI, Ken Boyer, owner of Boyer's Tele-Com Services in Springfield, Missouri, recounted how men of Middle East background asked to buy his turbo-prop Piper Saratoga for $500,000. "'They wanted to buy it for cash that day. They meant business. There were no smiles or idle talk.' Boyer said the men were unshaven, dirty and nervous--and looked as though they had been living in their car. They told him, in broken English, that they would pay cash on the spot for a plane. 'They wanted it today,' said Boyer'" (Doria and Menard 2001).

Suspicious behavior. From Reuters (July 27, 2001, 10:05 a.m. PT): "Singapore scientists have created new software that may beef up future surveillance efforts by distinguishing between people's normal activities and suspicious behavior. The software, created by researchers at the Nanyang Technological University, can tell the difference between people walking, talking and acting normally, and abnormal behavior such as a fight or someone collapsing. The Singapore team recorded and classified 73 features of human movement, such as speed, direction, shape and pattern. The features were then used with existing 'neural network' software, which can learn and remember patterns, to create a new program. 'Each of the features is actually generated from a formula . . . then the learning software will be able to classify certain motion as normal or abnormal,' associate professor Maylor Leung told Reuters on Friday. 'It's something new. No one has tried (developing it), and so far we are successful,' he said. Images fed to the software, from a surveillance camera, for example, are analyzed almost instantly and with 96 percent accuracy, Leung said. The software can trigger an alarm when unusual movements are detected, making it well suited for surveillance." (Copyright Reuters 2001) 

Together, then apart. Two or more individuals interacting as a cohesive group who subsequently split up and act individually, each on his or her own agenda, and following his or her own pathways, may be considered an unusual behavior pattern. People seen huddling together upon entering an airport terminal, e.g., who then enter ticket lines or screening checkpoints apart from colleagues, may be trying to disguise their affiliation as a group.

Unusual behavior. Though not always suspicious, unusual behavior is often disturbing: "LOS ANGELES (October 1, 2001 9:58 a.m. EDT) - A group of seven people were escorted by armed guards off a plane at Los Angeles International Airport after one man's actions made other passengers nervous. The FBI released them shortly afterward and no arrests were made, officials said. The travelers did not return to the flight. The America West flight from Los Angeles to Phoenix was preparing to taxi from the gate Saturday when passengers noticed a man, whom they believed to be Middle Eastern, stand up and pass his travel itinerary to an older man, said Nancy Castles, airport spokeswoman. He then asked a flight attendant if he could get off the airplane to retrieve other documents, said . . . Castles. 'Where was he going to get these documents?' Castles said. 'That's why it was considered suspicious behavior'" (Copyright by Associated Press 2001). 

Visual monitoring. Unusual behavior may also include the act of watching a check station, security door, or food-delivery system at an airport, especially from areas not usually frequented by passengers, friends and family, or airport staff. (Recording routine airport activities with a video camera should be considered highly unusual.)

Walking-in-line. Two men walking side-by-side together in an airport may be benign. But two men walking in line together (i.e., one following closely behind the other) may represent a single-minded mission in pursuit of unsavory goals. Border patrol officers have identified walking-in-line as an unwitting sign given by persons intending to cross the U.S. border, illegally, as a team.

Inspector "Scores" Quick Return on Training Investment

By Patrick Martin, Supervisory Customs Inspector/Class Coordinator

U.S. Customs Today, August 2000 (Excerpts)
Michael Phillips, who recently graduated from the Basic Inspector Training Course at the U.S. Customs Service Academy, wasted little time in putting acquired skills to use in the field. Little did he know that within hours of donning his uniform for the first time, he would be involved in a five-pound heroin seizure.
Phillips immediately departed the Training Center for his duty station at Atlanta International Airport.

Mysterious bulges, inappropriate clothing
On one particular flight, Inspector Phillips gave all passengers an extra level of scrutiny because it had originated from a narcotics source country. With his new inspector title literally only hours old, Phillips noticed that a female passenger on the flight looked particularly bulky around her midsection. She was also wearing a blazer, which caught Phillips' attention because of the warm climate from which she had departed, as well as the warm Atlanta weather.

Phillips' newly-acquired training and natural instincts led him to suspect that passenger was using the blazer as a concealment device. As he began to question the traveler, his suspicions grew stronger.
She claimed to be destined for a one-week visit with a friend in New York, yet could provide no details about the friend beyond his first name. She also said that she would be staying at a hotel, but had no reservations. Phillips thought it unusual that she would not be staying with the friend. She claimed to be employed as a travel agent, but was unable to answer basic questions about information on her airline ticket.

Nonverbal clues mount up
As Phillips questioned the passenger, she became increasingly nervous. Her voice began to tremble, she began to fidget, and she no longer made eye contact with him. Inspector Phillips felt that further examination would be productive, so he referred the passenger to secondary, where she was asked to remove the blazer.

Bulges under the woman's blouse were quite apparent. A patdown--authorized and performed by a supervisor -- was positive. The supervisor authorized a partial body search, which revealed a girdle containing rows of pellets which tested positive for heroin, with a combined weight of 2.2 kilograms. The heroin was seized and the passenger was arrested.
When Inspector Phillips heard the results of the personal search, he was already back at the checkpoint, trying to ferret out other smugglers. He responded with a broad smile of satisfaction.

"Inspector Phillips knew, as do all graduates of the Customs Academy, that we're not 'guessing' when we perform a personal search on a passenger," says Robert Olson, assistant director for Field Operations Training. "The inspector must present the supervisor with sufficient articulable facts that will lead the supervisor to believe there is a good chance that the passenger has possession of contraband. 

Copyright 2000 by U.S. Customs Department

Drawing of "Showing My Nonverbal Side" by my son Aaron Huffman (copyright 2012 by Aaron M. Huffman)