Amid the media furor over the attempted Christmas Day attacks and a renewed political focus on enhancing airport security, attention is turning to a technological advancement that will have civil rights activists -- or, for that matter, anyone with a secret --seriously worried: Mind-reading machines.
"As far-fetched as that sounds, systems that aim to get inside an evildoer's head are among the proposals floated by security experts thinking beyond the X-ray machines and metal detectors used on millions of passengers and bags each year," AP's Michael Tarm reports.
Tarm focuses on an Israeli company called WeCU Technologies (as in "we see you"), which is building a system that would turn airport waiting areas into arenas for Pavlovian behavioral tests:
The system ... projects images onto airport screens, such as symbols associated with a certain terrorist group or some other image only a would-be terrorist would recognize, company CEO Ehud Givon said.
The logic is that people can't help reacting, even if only subtly, to familiar images that suddenly appear in unfamiliar places. If you strolled through an airport and saw a picture of your mother, Givon explained, you couldn't help but respond.
The reaction could be a darting of the eyes, an increased heartbeat, a nervous twitch or faster breathing, he said. The WeCU system would use humans to do some of the observing but would rely mostly on hidden cameras or sensors that can detect a slight rise in body temperature and heart rate.
Homeland Security officials have long been keen on Israeli counter-terror technologies, given the country's extensive experience with terrorism and its reputation for having some of the most effective security systems in the world.
According to numerous news reports, WeCU has received two grants, from the US Transportation Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security, for their research. Raw Story was unable to determine how much money WeCU received from the US government, but regulatory filings show the company spent at least $60,000 on lobbying in Washington in 2006 and 2007.
WeCU has already developed a prototype model of the mind-reading technology, which, according to an article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, has already been demonstrated to government security officials in the US, Germany and Israel. It was evidently from that demonstration that US agencies decided to fund the project.
"It sounds like science fiction," WeCU CEO Ehud Givon told the Jerusalem Post. "But I can assure you that the technology is very real. We have accuracy rates that are higher than 95 percent."
Supporters of mind-reading technology argue that it would reduce waiting lines at security checkpoints and reduce the hassle for travelers. But the risks to personal privacy inherent in mind-reading technologies are self-evident. AP reports:
Some critics have expressed horror at the approach, calling it Orwellian and akin to "brain fingerprinting."
For civil libertarians, attempting to read a person's thoughts comes uncomfortably close to the future world depicted in the movie "Minority Report," where a policeman played by Tom Cruise targets people for "pre-crimes," or merely thinking about breaking the law.
WeCU's technology is by no means the only mind-reading security system in development today. Another Israeli company, Suspect Detection Systems, has developed a technology that reads a person's "hostile intent" by measuring bodily responses, through the person's hand, while being asked questions. That system was field-tested at the Knoxville, Tennessee, airport last summer.
Between 2005 and 2006, SDS received $460,000 in grants from the TSA and the science directorate of Homeland Security.
The company appears to have ramped up its public relations in the wake of the Christmas Day bombing attempt.
"A simple five minute automated interrogation during the Visa application process, or at the airport security checkpoint, would have most assuredly exposed the evil intention of Christmas terrorist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab before he ever boarded," SDS CEO Shabtai Shoval said in a press release.
But while these methods are still in development, other behavior-detection technologies, that have less to do directly with reading minds, are on the cusp of being ready for deployment. The Department of Homeland Security has given the green light to FAST, or Future Attribute Screening Technology, which uses a combination of biometric scanners to measure a person's pulse, breathing, pupil dilation and other signals that can determine "hostile intent."
While FAST isn't quite as intrusive as the WeCU system, it appears to be much closer to implementation, with field testing of the $20-million technology set to begin in 2011.