TSA wants to screen your baggage -- emotional baggage, that is

Published 19 February 2009

To improve on X-ray and millimeter-wave scanning and go beyond group profiling, some suggest screening passengers for hostile intentions

Woody Allen wanted to be a philosopher. He says that in high school he was a member of the Existentialist Club, and the caption under his picture in the club’s yearbook read: “The student most likely to be.” He went to NYU, where things did not go as well: He was expelled from school. The reason, he says, was that during a mid-term exam in Ethics 101, he was caught peeking into the soul of the student sitting next to him.

Now, talking about peering into somebody else’s soul (as former president George Bush said he did, peering into Vladimir Putin’s soul and “finding a good man”): The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is evaluating a new device that supposedly senses hostile intentions in people. The idea behind the new scanner, dubbed “Future Attribute Screening Technology” or FAST, is that terrorists and criminals display certain behavioral and psychological mannerisms before committing an attack. Equipped with a variety of lasers and sensors, the scanner collects data about people’s gestures, facial expressions, and voice to determine their level of hostility (see 24 September 2008 HS Daily Wire). As reported by the New Scientist, the scanners are mobile, so they may be deployed in concert venues, sporting events, and the U.S. border region.

Screening of emotional baggage 
OhMyGov’s Caren Sachs reports that FAST works like this: A person walks through a security checkpoint entrance way that contains a series of video, audio, laser, and infrared sensors. The sensors scan your body and send the data to a computer that analyzes your gestures, facial expressions, and voice to determine whether or not you are hostile. The computer even detects your heart rate, breathing, temperature, and respiration rate to get a more accurate reading — all without any physical contact (this may remind our readers of the “pre-crime” units in Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report”).

Last September DHS conducted a field test on 144 people in Maryland, having each of them pass through a walkway covered in the sensors. Analysts were standing by to gather the incoming data to predict who among the human subjects might be deceptive. Before the experiment, DHS had to meet the necessary safety standards to make sure the scanners would not cause any emotional or physical harm to the subjects.

A handful of test subjects were given “disruptive devices” to carry through the walkway. Some were told to act edgy and hostile. Most were not informed of the sensors — rather, they believed they were attending some sort of technology expo. Of the twenty-three subjects feigning hostility, many were detected. “We are running at about 78 percent accuracy of mal-intent detection and 80 percent on deception,” said DHS’s John Verrico.  “We’re still very early on in this research, but it is looking promising.”

Sachs writes that beyond the questions of accuracy, skeptics of FAST are concerned about the privacy implications of a device that captures an array of personal information without a reasonable cause for search. DHS’s Verrico said that the gathered data is never matched to a name, and that it is only used during the moment someone walks through the portal to determine whether they should be pulled over for questioning. As soon as a person has walked through the passageway, he said, the information is discarded. One privacy advocate is not convinced FAST is worth worrying about yet. Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Project, is far too skeptical of FAST’s accuracy to spend time debating the privacy issues. “Show me it works before [we] debate the civil liberties consequences,” he said.