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Homeland Security plans to scan air travelers’ bodily functions

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A Department of Homeland Security program that tries to detect air passengers who are “up to no good” is raising privacy concerns, says a CNN report which aired Tuesday.

CNN’s Jeanne Meserve described DHS’s Future Attribute Screening Technology (FAST) as “marrying a lot of existing technology, some of it medical,” to measure breathing, heart rate, blinking, fidgeting, and other bodily functions of passengers at airports.

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The idea is essentially to create a remote lie detector, where sensors placed at airport security screening areas would be able to monitor a passenger’s physical reaction to questions being asked by screeners.

Critics have likened the concept to the “Department of Pre-Crime” in the 2001 film Minority Report, which describes a future where persons are caught and convicted of crimes before they occur.

Originally entitled Project Hostile Intent, the program was revealed by the science magazine NewScientist in 2007. According to a report at the time in the UK’s Guardian, “the new devices are expected to be trialled at a handful of airports, borders and ports of entry by 2012.”

As of last year, the program was “running at about 78 percent accuracy on mal-intent detection, and 80 percent on deception,” according to DHS science spokesman John Verrico.

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The Guardian reported in 2007:

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 behaviour, with the aim of identifying people who should be approached and quizzed by security staff, New Scientist magazine reports.

The project hopes to advance a security system already employed by the US transportation security administration that monitors people for unintentional facial twitches, called “micro-expressions”, that can suggest someone is lying or trying to conceal information.

“Questions remain, however, as to how secure the system is. The machines could reveal health conditions like heart murmurs and breathing problems as well as stress levels – which would be an invasion of privacy,” NewScientist reported last year.

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“It is an invasion of privacy,” Jay Stanley, director of public education for the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Program, told CNN. “Nobody has the right to look at my intimate bodily functions, my heart rate, my breathing, from afar.”

And, as Meserve noted, “some experts are doubtful the system can distinguish between potential terrorists and people stressed for other reasons, like a late flight.”

“There’s not much science here,” said Stephen Fienberg, professor of statistics and social science at Carnegie Mellon University. “In fact, there may be no science here. And I’m really worried that we’re going to carried away by the hype, and there’s just nothing here. The emperor may have no clothes.”

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This video is from CNN’s American Morning, broadcast Oct. 6, 2009.



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