In an effort to fight terrorism, many airports are considering use of a machine which would read and analyze biometric responses such as blood pressure, sweat and pulse rates. According to the Wall Street Journal, some Knoxville, TN passengers were selected to participate in a trial of such a machine.
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 TSA is being pretty tight lipped about the nature of the tests and questions but the WSJ reports that “the system is generally designed to measure physical responses to hot-button questions like “Are you planning to immigrate illegally?” or “Are you smuggling drugs.” Hmm, that sounds pretty terrorist related to me.
The method isn’t intended to catch specific lies, says Shabtai Shoval, chief executive of Suspect Detection Systems, the start-up business behind the technology dubbed Cogito. “What we are looking for are patterns of behavior that indicate something all terrorists have: the fear of being caught,” he says.
Now I am sure that terrorists fear getting caught, but what about those poor souls that have an honest fear of flying? What about those who have health issues that make it appear that they are fearful of being caught?
The TSA already has a human version of the test and deals with those very questions.
The people-based program — called Screening Passengers by Observation Technique, or SPOT — began undergoing tests at Boston’s Logan Airport after 9/11 and has expanded to 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.
“All you know is there’s an emotion being concealed. You have to find out why the emotion is occurring,” says Paul Ekman, a San Francisco psychologist who pioneered work on facial expressions and is informally advising the TSA. “You can find out very quickly.”
More than 80% of those approached are quickly dismissed, he says. The explanations for hiding emotions often are innocent: A traveler might be stressed out from work, worried about missing a flight or sad because a relative just died. If suspicions remain, the traveler is interviewed at greater length by a screener with more specialized training. SPOT teams have identified about 100 people who were trying to smuggle drugs, use fake IDs and commit other crimes, but not terrorist acts.
It seems to me that this is less about terrorism and more about policing human behavior. The saddest part is that this will likely be an implemented policy in the very near future and people will scream so much about saving just one life that many will accept it with open arms.
My own husband told me the other day that it is not my “right” to travel on American Airlines. Perhaps he is right. When I was studying for my private pilot’s license, he refused to fly with me. He hates small aircraft and he talked me out of completing my training as I was to solo. Well, I guess it is time to start flying again because I will refuse to fly with him on a commercial airline which demands me be treated like property. Or even worse, like a criminal.