Polygraph reasoning applied to spotting terrorists…

Remember that the rationale behind the polygraph is that (with an appropriate questioning regime) guilty people are assumed have physiological responses that differ from innocents? Well, the new “anxiety-detecting machines” that the DHS hopes might one day spot terrorists seem to work on the same basis. Here’s the report from USA Today (18 Sept):

A scene from the airport of the future: A man’s pulse races as he walks through a checkpoint. His quickened heart rate and heavier breathing set off an alarm. A machine senses his skin temperature jumping. Screeners move in to question him. Signs of a terrorist? Or simply a passenger nervous about a cross-country flight?

It may seem Orwellian, but on Thursday, the Homeland Security Department showed off an early version of physiological screeners that could spot terrorists. The department’s research division is years from using the machines in an airport or an office building— if they even work at all. But officials believe the idea could transform security by doing a bio scan to spot dangerous people.

Critics doubt such a system can work. The idea, they say, subjects innocent travelers to the intrusion of a medical exam.

According to the news report, there is some effort going into testing the equipment, though if the details in the news report are to be believed it sounds like the research is still at a very early stage:

To pinpoint the physiological reactions that indicate hostile intent, researchers… recruited 140 local people with newspaper and Internet ads seeking testers in a “security study.” Each person receives $150.

On Thursday, subjects walked one by one into a trailer with a makeshift checkpoint. A heat camera measured skin temperature. A motion camera watched for tiny skin movements to measure heart and breathing rates. As a screener questioned each tester, five observers in another trailer looked for sharp jumps on the computerized bands that display the person’s physiological characteristics.

Some subjects were instructed in advance to try to cause a disruption when they got past the checkpoint, and to lie about their intentions when being questioned. Those people’s physiological responses are being used to create a database of reactions that signal someone may be planning an attack. More testing is planned for the next year.

The questioning element does make it sound like what is being developed is a ‘remote’ polygraph.

Hat tip to Crim Prof Blog.

UPDATE: Lots of places picking this up all over the www. New Scientist has a post on the same topic here, and an earlier article on the system here. The Telegraph’s report adds some new information.

Leave a Reply