“Mind-reading” airport security claims overblown

There are a host of stories today about mind-reading technology being the future of US airport security. But there’s no real suggestion the technology will ever be adopted in the country, and the system actually monitors the body rather than the brain.

The attention has come from a syndicated Associated Press story which has appeared in outlets such as the Los Angeles Times. It looks at a variety of new or improved techniques for improving security, an obvious hot topic in the wake of the failed attempt to bring down a plane over Detroit on Christmas Day.

The suggestions range from simply examining passengers and baggage in more detail, to privatizing security, to making more use of profiling to focus attention on the more likely suspects. But there are also some technological ideas, both stemming from Israel.

One, currently being studied by the Department of Homeland Security, is known as Future Attribute Screening Technology (or FAST), and involves scanning eye and facial movements as well as using Wii-style balance boards to detect uneasiness. Those behind the technology say it can detect physical signs of anxiety which are specific to those intending to do harm (as opposed to general nervousness). At the moment the system works by staff specifically pulling passengers out of line to use the equipment, but the plan is to develop it so it can be used on all passengers without causing disruption.

The most attention-grabbing suggestion is a system created by Israeli firm WeCU. Contrary to reports of “mind reading”, it instead uses cameras and sensors which can detect bodily changes such as temperature and heart rate. Staff then display images or text on visible surfaces as passengers are passing through security. The idea is to use images which only a terrorist would recognize, such as logos of their political group or even pictures of a suspected co-conspirator.

The theory is that this causes an involuntary physical reaction in the same way as a person would instantly respond to seeing a picture of their children. According to WeCU’s chief Ehud Givon, the system only detects a response where somebody has built up a strong psychological association with an image or text.

It’s worth noting that although the Department of Homeland Security has given research grants to WeCU, there are no current known plans to use the technology in the US.

(Picture courtest of Flickr user nedrichards.)

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