Thoughtcrime Prevention At Airports

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Forget RFID chips that merely trace our physical movements in airports–The Wall Street Journal tells us of recent testing in a Knoxville airport of a computerized polygraph test that allegedly will trace our most sinister thoughts, ferreting out hidden terroristic intent on the part of would-be airline passengers:

With one hand inserted into a sensor that monitors physical responses, the travelers used the other hand to answer questions on a touch screen about their plans. A machine measured biometric responses—blood pressure, pulse and sweat levels—that then were analyzed by software. The idea was to ferret out U.S. officials who were carrying out carefully constructed but make-believe terrorist missions.

The trial of the Israeli-developed system represents an effort by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration to determine whether technology can spot passengers who have "hostile intent."

Even more interesting than the details on this lie-detectorish technique, not yet ready for full roll out, are discussions of the already-in-place "Screening Passengers by Observation Technique (SPOT)" method, in use at "about a dozen airports."

Trained teams watch travelers in security lines and elsewhere. They look for obvious things like someone wearing a heavy coat on a hot day, but also for subtle signs like vocal timbre, gestures and tiny facial movements that indicate someone is trying to disguise an emotion.

TSA officers observe passengers while consulting a list of more than 30 questionable behaviors, each of which has a numerical score. If someone scores high enough, an officer approaches the person and asks a few questions….More than 80% of those approached are quickly dismissed…

If suspicions remain, the traveler is interviewed at greater length by a screener with more specialized training.

A possibly disturbing, but useful and necessary, post-9/11 tool against terror, right? Of course, we must recognize that Things Have Changed. But some things, like law enforcement desire to use any tools they can scare us into allowing them to have for whatever purpose they choose, have not:

SPOT teams have identified about 100 people who were trying to smuggle drugs, use fake IDs and commit other crimes, but not terrorist acts.

Well, there's always tomorrow. The piece is filled with fascinating and disturbing details, and well worth a full read.

[Hat tip to Reason reader Ken Bourque.]

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  1. With one hand inserted into a sensor that monitors physical responses…

    “You’ve courage, and that can’t be denied. Well, we shall see, sirra.” She bent close, lowered her voice almost to a whisper. “You will feel pain in this hand within the box. Pain. But! Withdraw the hand and I’ll touch your neck with my gom jabbar — the death so swift it’s like the fall of the headsman’s axe. Withdraw your hand and the gom jabbar takes you. Understand?

  2. Orwell was right, this world is going to hell.

  3. They look for obvious things like someone wearing a heavy coat on a hot day

    It’s a good thing my grandfather is afraid to fly. Hot for him is 106 degrees.

  4. They look for obvious things like someone wearing a heavy coat on a hot day

    It’s a good thing my grandfather is afraid to fly. Hot for him is 106 degrees.

  5. People’s fascination with polygraphs is crazy to me. Here you have a machine that can somewhat reliably tell you if someone is nervous for some reason. That’s it. Yet people are chomping at the bit to use it to decide everything from who gets to go out with their daughter to who gets to get on a plane. Crazy.

  6. I just returned from a 10-day trip with my (very difficult) mother-in-law, husband, and two small sons, involving many airports. If this software catches people repressing negative emotions, it certainly would have caught me.

  7. Why stop at airports? Heck, there should be something in my car and at my front door to stop me. In case I go bad.

    MikeP,

    Hey, we’ve got to weed out the animals from the humans, right? How else will we breed the Kwisatz Haderach? I’m pretty sure that I’m the Kwisatz Haderach, but I lack a convenient supply of spice essence to prove it.

  8. this is what customs officers (now ICE) have been doing for time immemorial. Well, actually for several decades but i digress

    relying on cues of nervousness, etc. as ways to determine who to take aside for secondary

    this is a technical enhancement of a basic custom agent’s job

  9. I can’t wait until they start combining this tool with the new airport strip searching (SFW) technology for maximum terrorist nabbing ability. No way these tools will ever be misused on the commoners.

  10. They look for obvious things like someone wearing a heavy coat on a hot day..

    Is this code for Arab beduoin clothing?

  11. GUYS
    check this out

    Declaring that airport screeners shouldn’t be hampered by “political correctness,” House Homeland Security Chairman Peter King has endorsed requiring people of “Middle Eastern and South Asian” descent to undergo additional security checks because of their ethnicity and religion.

    http://www.newsday.com/news/nationworld/nation/ny-usking0817,0,1253522.story?coll=ny-leadnationalnews-headlines

  12. this is what customs officers (now ICE) have been doing for time immemorial

    Just what I thought, whit. In the 1970 film Airport (granddaddy of all disaster movies) Lloyd Nolan’s character, the custom agent, ponders about how Van Heflin’s character, the disturbed passenger with the bomb, ‘has something wrong about him’ but can’t put his finger on it.

    Just plain old police work. Of course, they’ve given it a fancy acronym (SPOT). And formalized a few areas that used to be called instinct. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of these draw from things like NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming).

    We’re, of course, talking about the techniques in the second part of the post.

  13. one name: david lykken

  14. They have brain-wave readers to tell what you’re thinking, but it turns out not to work on women.

  15. Prediction: by two years from now, these “tension detectors” will be newly commonplace in airports. Three years from now, a study will be published (including a three-page feature story in the New York Times) casting doubt on the effectiveness of the technology. However, by then it will be so thoroughly enshrined in the public consciousness that airport security administrators will be unable or unwilling to discontinue it, until 10-15 years from now, when it will be quietly replaced by bees capable of sniffing out the damned and reprobate.

  16. recent testing in a Knoxville airport

    Living here, I can tell you it’s the Knoxville airport. None of your big-city two-airport ways here . . . 🙂

  17. I’m sorry it needs pointing out that in America we traditionally believed there was a difference between crossing a national border and moving around your own country (for the “it’s just what customs agents do” crew)….

  18. Everybody should have to wear mood rings to fly.

  19. Just plain old police work.

    The hanging around watching people is what is your beat cops have done since policing was invented, regardless of whether you were crossing a national border or crossing the street.

    The fact that it all gussied up with a cute acronym just means some consultant is driving around in a new Mercedes courtesy of your tax dollars, but I don’t see anything more sinister than that.

    The quasi lie detector thing really blows, but until we choke off Islamofascism at its source by eliminating its state sponsors, the forces pushing the domestic police state are going to be very hard to resist. One of the reasons I favor a very hard line against said state sponsors.

  20. No doubt they’ll be deploying this in Swiss and Norwegian airports soon, to deal with the massive risk of terror attacks on those countries. What? They won’t?? How come, I wonder?

  21. The results of polygraphs are not admissable in court in several states because biometric feedback is not considered conclusive. The real essence of a lie detector test is that the technician running th machine is typically an experienced, well-trained interrogator who takes most of his clues from the body language and other cues that the person under investigation gives off. Being hooked up to the polygraph simply tends to add to the stress of the interrogated, lowering his/her defenses so that the interrogator can more easily detect when they think that a person is lying. The machine isn’t really what decides who’s lying. People do.

  22. pi guy, you are of course right. and much like a polygraph, these cues are also not conclusive

    they are just a mechanical adjunct to the same thing that customs officers already do.

    which is look for signs that lead to further scrutiny. in many cases, these signs turn out to be “false positives” so to speak

  23. The quasi lie detector thing really blows, but until we choke off Islamofascism at its source by eliminating its state sponsors, the forces pushing the domestic police state are going to be very hard to resist.

    So we need to attack Saudi Arabia and Syria? Why are we wasting our time in Iraq, then?

  24. “They have brain-wave readers to tell what you’re thinking, but it turns out not to work on women.”

    That’s cuz men only think about one thing.

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