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Passive images might trigger ‘malintent cues’ from suspicious travelers

Minority Report:
Back again?

For years, DHS has been studying the behavior of travelers as they approach a security checkpoint to see if they unwittingly give off any clues that they are harboring what security officials call “malintent.” Researchers have studied travelers’ respiration, cardiovascular responses, eye movements, thermal measures and gross body movements, which occur while a traveler is communicating verbally with a security screener.

Now, DHS researchers are stepping things up a bit, by introducing what they call “passive stimuli” -- such as non-word images of security signs, guard posts, floor layouts and interview rooms -- which are intended to amplify the “malintent cues” emitted by a nervous traveler. DHS has recruited volunteers who have agreed to participate in experiments that will test whether such “passive” methodologies can be effective.

“The goal of the Passive Methods for Precision Behavioral Screening is to activate malintent representations selectively from individuals who already have malintent via passive, environmental stimuli; e.g., pictures, sounds, etc.,” explains a DHS privacy impact statement which was released last December.

In other words, the goal of the latest experiments in this arcane area of research is to determine whether the presentation of visual images on a monitor can trigger psychological reactions from a traveler that DHS sensors could capture and analyze in an automated way, and which would enable security personnel to determine that the traveler might, indeed, represent a bona fide threat.

Two of the aims of this research are to spot threatening travelers at greater stand-off distances and to lessen the likelihood that travelers will try to alter their behavior in order to fool security screeners.

In the future, DHS researchers plan to run operational tests of this “passive” methodology by studying volunteers as they approach screening sites at public places, such as special events, mass transit portals and border crossings, says the DHS privacy impact statement. “The volunteer will be asked to answer a few questions and to observe various stimuli as they are presented on an LCD monitor,” says the notice.

The original version of this DHS research program was called Future Attribute Screening Technology, or FAST, while the latest iteration -- which includes the passive stimuli -- is known as FAST/Passive.

Movie fans who might remember the Tom Cruise hit, Minority Report, which depicted law enforcement officers trying to anticipate future crimes, should understand that this behavior-based screening technique is intended to help screeners make better-informed decisions, says DHS, not to arrest the “bad guys” pro-actively.

“FAST is not intended to provide ‘probable cause’ for law enforcement processes, nor would the technology replace or pre-empt the decisions of human screeners,” says the DHS document.