TrendAnalyzing intentions and behavior from afar

Published 9 August 2007

Security firms working on devices to spot would-be terrorists in crowd; emphasis on analyzing behavior and physiology from afar

We wrote earlier this week about a Purdue University researcher who received a DHS grant to develop technology to spot terrorists in a crowd. This was but the latest example of a broader effort on this front, as counterterrorism experts have drawn up plans to develop an array of advanced technologies which would allow law enforcement to spot would-be terrorists in a crowd before they have time to strike. Scientists and engineers have been asked to devise ways of analyzing people’s behavior and physiology from afar, in the hope that such an analysis would reveal clues about their mental state and even their future intentions. Under Project Hostile Intent, scientists will aim to build devices that can pick up tell-tale signs of hostile intent or deception from people’s heart rates, perspiration and tiny shifts in facial expressions. The project was launched by DHS with a call to security companies and government laboratories for assistance. According to the timetable set out, the new devices are expected to be trialled at a handful of airports, borders, and ports of entry by 2012.

The Guardian’s Ian Sample writes that the plans describe how systems based on video cameras, laserlight, infra-red, audio recordings, and eye tracking technology are expected to scour crowds looking for unusual behavior, with the aim of identifying people who should be approached and quizzed by security staff, New Scientist’s Paul Marks reports. The project hopes to advance a security system already employed by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) which monitors people for unintentional facial twitches, called “micro-expressions,” which can suggest someone is lying or trying to conceal information. Studies by Paul Ekman, a psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco, have revealed that involuntary expressions can often betray someone’s true intentions. If you flash your teeth, lower your eyebrows and wrinkle your nose for a fraction of a second while trying to smile, you have just demonstrated the micro-expression for disgust. A major hurdle will be developing technology that can make correct decisions quickly. The project is also expected to investigate developing a lie detector-type test that can be used remotely — an advantage because it would not interfere with the flow of a crowd and it could be used without the target’s knowledge.

Experts are skeptical that today’s technology will be able to predict hostile intent accurately enough to be useful. Ekman said a terrorist might confound security measures by showing a range of expressions from fear of being caught to distress at the possibility of dying. Peter McOwan, a computer scientist who is developing sensors to detect people’s moods at Queen Mary, University of London, said: “It’s just like something from Minority Report. They have been watching too many Tom Cruise movies.”