This is a little concerning. A year ago, the US Department of Homeland Security reckoned that it had worked out how to read people’s minds, and detect “hostile thoughts”. They’ve just announced that they think it actually works.
Following an initially sceptical reception from the world’s media, the DHS rebadged the project from “Project Hostile Intent” to “Future Attribute Screening Technologies”. Sensors detect pulse rate, breathing, skin temperature, or fleeting facial expressions, and if a threshold is passed, then you’re pulled aside for “gentle” questioning.
The recent tests involved groups in volunteers walking through trailers outfitted with the sensors. Some were told to “act shifty”, to be evasive, or hostile. Many were spotted. “We’re still very early on in this research, but it is looking very promising,” says DHS science spokesman John Verrico. “We are running at about 78% accuracy on mal-intent detection, and 80% on deception.”
Of course this is a rather large invasion of privacy. There might be a very good, or at least legal, reason that you’re looking shifty, or sweating – perhaps you’re having an affair, or you’re heading to a conference to deliver a very important speech. Maybe you’re just a naturally sweaty person – some people are. I don’t want to have to explain that I’m just a “naturally sweaty person” to a border official. I’m not, incidentally. No really, I’m not.
I was watching a comedian on TV recently who recounted the story of taking his girlfriend on holiday to propose to her. He secretly had the ring in a little box in his bag, and when his bag was being searched, the official asked him to open it and show what was inside. His girlfriend was right next to him, so he said “er, I’d rather not if that’s okay…”. Bad move. He was surrounded by security, and eventually had to go down on one knee in the middle of the security area of an airport and propose to his girlfriend right there.
Verrico says FAST has been through stringent privacy controls and that the data is never matched to a name. It is only used to make decisions about whether to question someone, and then chucked away. That’s not really the point though, is it? There’s still every possibility that a rogue customs official could misuse some very private data.
The team behind FAST want it to be easily transportable, so that FAST trucks can appear at any sports or music event as required. They want them to become as regular a sight at such events as mobile toilets and catering trucks. I’m no privacy activist, but I fear the day.