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Coming Soon to an Airport Near You


If you fly within the United States in the future, keep your expression neutral, do not blink too much or too little, and do not sweat. Carefully maintain a normal respiration and heart beat as you submit to demands from Homeland Security agents. If you question or resist their demands, you could be detained as a pre-crime suspect, fined up to $11,000 and added to a No Fly list.

On July 5, a headline in the bioethical news source BioEdge declared, “‘Pre-crime’ terrorist detector field tested in US.” BioEdge explained that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has finished initial testing of Future Attribute Screening Technology (FAST), which is “designed to spot people who intend to commit a terrorist act.” According to DHS documents, however, FAST targets a far broader range of people, from “individuals planning to cause a disturbance or use false documents to individuals who are planning an assassination or terrorist attack. The future time horizon can range from planning an event years in advance to planning to carry out the act immediately after passing through screening.”

Unlike most other security measures, FAST is not aimed at finding contraband or explosives but at identifying suspicious people before they can cause trouble. FAST expands a trend currently expressed through the behavior detection officers who are part of a TSA (Transportation Security Administration) program entitled Screening Passengers by Observation Technique (SPOT). These TSA screeners are trained to spot and detain questionable people even if the people have done nothing wrong; about 3,000 behavior-detection officers are currently spread throughout America’s airport system.

FAST aims at mechanizing this detection process, although on-site human analysts will still receive and interpret the data. Pre-criminals will be identified through the use of remote cardiovascular and respiratory sensors, a remote eye tracker, thermal cameras, high-resolution video, and an audio monitor for pitch change. Additional sensors, such as pheromone detectors, are being considered. People with aberrant readings are likely to receive “special treatment” on the suspicion of their being suspicious.

In the recent field test, sensors were embedded in an isolated corridor through which volunteers passed and were “read” as they did so. It is not possible to assess how reliable the readings were because the data is classified. Earlier lab tests, however, claim an accuracy rate of about 70 per cent but the tests were non-random, with no blind study or other standard controls. Nevertheless, Undersecretary for the Science and Technology Directorate for Homeland Security, Jay Cohen, has pronounced the first stage of FAST to be a “home run.” This means the program will not only seek to expand but will also be installed in areas through which everyone must pass.

The FAST screening of passengers has three possible stages. If any person triggers a “flag.” then the sensors transmit a warning to on-site analysts, and the person may be taken to one side. The flagged person undergoes “micro-facial scanning and enhanced questioning” during which muscle movements in the face are measured to ascertain his mood and intentions. After enhanced screening, the person is assigned a “malintent level” that determines his subsequent handling.

What happens to those judged as a high risk? No information is available but it is reasonable to assume the treatment would not differ significantly from that which was meted out by TSA behavior-detection officers.

In August 2009, a California college student named Nicholas George went through a checkpoint at the Philadelphia airport. George was studying Arabic. In his bag, TSA behavior-detection officers found both flash cards with Arabic words and a book on foreign policy. He received “enhanced questioning” before being handcuffed by the Philadelphia police, who held him for four hours. After being questioned by F.B.I. agents, George was released without charges.

Backlash against FAST

Most criticism of FAST revolves around the accuracy of the data. In Nature News (May 26, 2010) Sharon Weinberger explained,

“No scientific evidence exists to support the detection or inference of future behaviour, including intent,” declares a 2008 report prepared by the JASON defence advisory group. And the TSA had no business deploying SPOT across the nation’s airports “without first validating the scientific basis for identifying suspicious passengers in an airport environment,” stated a two-year review of the programme released on 20 May by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of the US Congress.

Many experts do not believe there are identifiable physiological indicators that are directly linked to malicious intentions or pre-criminals. The indicators measured by FAST — for example, a speedy heart beat — could easily be caused by the anxiety of confronting armed TSA officers, a fear of flying, a fight with your spouse, stress at work, being in a rush, or too much coffee. In short, many experts do not consider FAST’s mission to be scientific or technologically sound. To them, it is akin to phrenology — a “science” revolving around the shape and measurement of the brain and skull — which became a tool through which some 19th-century police departments detected pre-criminals by examining the bumps on their heads.

But critiques of data effectiveness miss the point of FAST. The point is to expand social control and, at that task, FAST may prove remarkably effective.

Since 9/11, the TSA has conditioned Americans to accept an ever-increasing totalitarianism at airports in exchange for the “privilege” of traveling within their own nation. From rigid I.D. requirements to stripping off clothing at command, from tiny bottles in plastic bags to porn scanners and pat-downs … Americans have proven to be amazingly compliant, even when a stranger gropes their children’s genitals. The TSA is helping to create the Newer American — a citizen who is even more obedient than before and half-frightened and half-awed by men in uniform. The Newer American lines up passively in queues to have his rights and dignity violated by ill-mannered, ill-trained thugs who claim to be his protectors, and is even grateful for it.

In reality, the TSA is the antithesis of a protector. It views all flyers as pre-criminals to be surveilled because it presumes them to be guilty, not innocent. Guilty flyers can currently “prove” their innocence by submitting to a series of indignities that violate all Fourth Amendment rights. And, then, if no contraband is found and no wrong attitude expressed, the TSA will move on to the next guilty flyer. With FAST, however, there is no possibility of proving your innocence; the absence of contraband and a properly subservient attitude cannot hide your perspiration from the sensors; you are condemned by your unexpressed thoughts and emotions, by your presumed malicious intentions. Based solely on the calculations of machinery, you can be detained, placed under surveillance or arrested. Your movements, not your actions, make you guilty.

FAST is coming soon

The field test for FAST has been declared “a success.” The program is a logical extension of the TSA’s behavior-detection officers, SPOT, and the malintent programs. Certainly within TSA, there is a push to go high tech and ever expand its authority.

Nevertheless, it is not certain that FAST will be implemented throughout the airport system. Cost is one barrier. Practical concerns, such as the high rate of false positives, is another. Political backlash poses a problem.

Perhaps the most ominous aspect of FAST is that the field tests were conducted by using a movable lab of equipment and people, which resembled nothing so much as a huge recreational trailer. The lab, officials assure us, can be transported to provide security for trains, malls, public events … for everything from an inauguration to little Johnnie’s birthday party. Yes, the totalitarianism that defines the modern airport can now visit your neighborhood, like a depraved ice cream truck, and force feed you “a sense of freedom.”

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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).