DHS Funds Biometric Surveillance Checkpoint Technology

By Matthew Harwood

A Cambridge-based research laboratory is helping the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) implement a $20 million program to create checkpoint technology that would notice the imperceptible and alert security screeners, reports The Boston Globe.

The creation from Draper Laboratory and other collaborators will home in on irregular physiological and behavioral biometrics of the individual being screened, such as heart rate, blink rate, and even fidgeting.

According to the Globe, DHS and researchers believe the technology will help:

... security checkpoint personnel at airports or large public events ... make better, faster decisions about whether a person should get follow-up screening.

At a demonstration of the technology this week, [DHS] project manager Robert P. Burns said the idea is to track a set of involuntary physiological reactions that might slip by a human observer. These occur when a person harbors malicious intent - but not when someone is late for a flight or annoyed by something else, he said, citing years of research into the psychology of deception.

The development team is investigating how effective its techniques are at flagging only people who intend to do harm. 

DHS Science and Technology spokesman John S. Verrico told Security Management that FAST hopes to "provide information to decision-makers that he or she would not be able to detect with the naked eye."

He says FAST is composed of a series of sensors that scans the individual being screened for physiological tells. When a person approaches security, the sensors would establish a baseline, such as heart rate or breathing rate. That baseline is then compared to the biometric data flowing to the sensors when security personnel starts asking questions. If the screener feels that the individual's biometrics changed dramatically, she could be asked to undergo secondary screening for a more thorough look over.

Security-minded critics, however, worry that the technology is not as refined as human observation and intuition, while civil libertarians fear the technology will detect malicious intent where none exists, with innocent people ultimately winding up on government watch lists.

One of the technology's skeptics is Paul Ekman,  a consultant on the project who also is the person "who pioneered the study of facial expression and emotion," according to the Globe. Currently, the eminent psychologist trains government workers, including Transportation Security Administration employees, how to spot suspicious behavior and he isn't sweet on the technology.

“I can understand why there’s an attempt being made to find a way to replace or improve on what human observers can do: the need is vast, for a country as large and porous as we are," he said. "However, I’m by no means convinced that any technology, any hardware will come close to doing what a highly trained human observer can do.’’

Verrico says the technology will not replace screeners; it's just one more tool in a screener's toolbelt. The decision to ask someone to undergo secondary screening will always rest with the screener.

Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, worries more about false positives, especially considering the stress of flying.

“How many people are calm? People running to get to the gate, sweating through the security line, will I get there before my plane takes off?’’ she asked.

Coney worries more innocent people will find their way onto the notoriously inaccurate terrorism watch lists.

Verrico responded to these concerns as well. He said FAST will not collect or store any data so there is no way they DHS could connect a person's biometric data with a name.

"We don't care what your name is," he said. Rather FAST only concentrates on monitoring dramatic physiological changes in a person. Verrico believes FAST would also eliminate any inclination among screeners to profile. If a traveler can get by the FAST, it doesn't matter what nationality, race, or religion a person is.

Whether or not FAST will ever get implemented is another big if, considering recent controversies surrounding screening technology.

In June, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) introduced and overwhelmingly passed an amendment to the TSA reauthorization bill that limits the use of whole-body imaging technology to secondary screening. The technology allows TSA screeners to peer underneath a traveler's clothes to scan for contraband. Critics say the screens are much too intrusive. The TSA reauthorization bill, which contains the whole-body imaging amendment, is still awaiting action by the Senate.

Researchers hope to test the FAST in 2011, probably at a border crossing.

♦ Photo of DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano viewing a demonstration of a full-body imaging screen by ProComKelly/Flickr


Where Does It End?

". . .involuntary physiological reactions that might slip by a human observer. These occur when a person harbors malicious intent - but not when someone is late for a flight or annoyed by something else. . ."

I have a hard time believing that the difference between these two emotions can be easily distinguished. I know plenty of people who, when annoyed at someone else, react as if they could kill them. Does this mean they would ever act on it. Not necessarily. Should people be placed on a national terrorist watch list because someone cut them off in traffic on the way to the airport? I am going to go with no on this one. FAST makes it seem as if the process would be quick, error free, and negate profiling. My guess would be that false positives would make the process take longer, and as long as human beings are involved in any part of the process, profiling will always be an issue. The DHS and FAST should be commended for making attempts to provide citizens with increased security . . .this is just not the way they should be going about it. What's next? They start equipping these machines with ultrasound parts so that screeners can decide if unborn babies should be placed on a future watchlist? It sounds crazy, but we all know it could happen. I'm just left to wonder, where does it end?

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