Precrime in America

The U.S. Department of Homeland security is working on a project called FAST, the Future Attribute Screening Technology. FAST will remotely monitor physiological and behavioural signals like elevated heart rate, eye movement, body temperature, facial patterns, and body language, and analyse these signals algorithmically for statistical aberrance in an attempt to identify people with criminal or terroristic intentions.

It’s useful to briefly talk about a few of the practical problems that such a system would face.

Firstly, the level of accuracy in remote monitoring. Is it possible to engineer a system that can remotely tell you the heart-rate of a hundred passengers  passing through a TSA checkpoint? Yes. Is it possible to do so accurately? That is much, much harder. The obvious conclusion is that such a system, were it to be deployed in the wilds of airports (and presumably, other locations where our ever-benevolent technocratic overlords determine “terrorists” or “criminals” may be operating) would — given a large enough number of scans — produce a lot of false positives stemming from erroneous data.

But let’s assume that such a system can be calibrated to produce a relatively accurate data set. Now we are faced with the problem of defining “suspicious” behaviour. Surely a passenger with the flu or a cold — who might have an elevated body temperature and a faster heart rate — would set alarm bells ringing. So too would someone suffering from pre-flight anxiety, people taking certain medications, the elderly and so on. Given that TSA screening protocols have prevented precisely zero terrorist attacks on American soil since 9/11 (even in spite of the fact that 630 million passengers fly each year ) this merely suggests that vulnerable people will end up getting hassled by the TSA to an even greater extent than they already would be today. This is no laughing matter — a nervous but otherwise perfectly innocent passenger might end up getting tasered and die — something which of course has  happened multiple times already. Or —  under the NDAA (2011) — false-positives might end up being indefinitely detained on totally erroneous grounds.

Of course, the next problem is distinguishing the guilty from the innocent. Simply, this system would seem to produce nothing other than circumstantial evidence. Given that no crime would have yet been committed, how would it be possible to prove nefarious intent? Perhaps one day a terrorist or drug smuggler (got to keep fighting the war on drugs…) will be foolish enough to try to carry a gun or a knife through a TSA checkpoint and onto an aeroplane, but given that a metal detector could have detected that anyway, what is the point of this new technology? Surely it is to pinpoint potential terrorists who would otherwise not be picked out by the body scanners? In that case, would the end result just be that people — with no real evidence against them other than a fast heart rate and some perspiration — end up being thrown off their flight? Would people who are subject to a false positive and as a result miss a flight try to sue the TSA for wasting their time and money?

Next, just as a committed and composed liar can fool a polygraph, surely terrorists and drug smugglers out in the wild would adapt their behaviour to avoid detection. There are of course prescription drugs that can be taken to reduce the physiological symptoms of anxiety, and thus fool the detector.

Then there are the problems in testing. Subjects in the laboratory trials (taxpayer-funded, of course) have been told to go through the system with the intent to cause a disruptive act. The system has been fine-tuned to detect subjects in a controlled laboratory environment. Simply, there is no data on the effectiveness of this system against terrorists in the wild. The wild is a totally different environment, and the mindset and physiological cues of a real terrorist may well be entirely different to those of a laboratory subject who is pretending (we just don’t know until we try it on a large enough sample of real terrorists). The notion that it can catch terrorists seems wholly pseudo-scientific, and based on the false premise that terrorism has an identifiable set of physiological cues.  The entire operation is based on the (possibly flawed) premise that a terrorist will be nervous, and that therefore we should cast an extremely wide dragnet to further interrogate and intimidate nervous people. That is guesswork, not science.

As Alexander Furnas writing in the Atlantic states:

We should ask, in a world where we are already pass through full-body scanners, take off our shoes, belts, coats and only carry 3.5 oz containers of liquid, is more stringent screening really what we need and will it make us any safer? Or will it merely brand hundreds of innocent people as potential terrorists and provide the justification of pseudo-scientific algorithmic behavioral screening to greater invasions of their privacy?

It is ridiculous — and totally contrary to the Fourth Amendment — that the courts have franked the notion that air travellers can be subject to invasive pat-downs and body scans without probably cause. But they did. In U.S. vs Davis, 482 F.2d 893, 908 the judge ruled that “airport screenings are considered to be administrative searches because they are conducted as part of a general regulatory scheme, where the essential administrative purpose is to prevent the carrying of weapons or explosives aboard aircraft” and thatan administrative search is allowed if no more intrusive or intensive than necessary, in light of current technology, to detect weapons or explosives, confined in good faith to that purpose, and passengers may avoid the search by electing not to fly.”

But to effectively conduct a medical scan on passengers? Surely this goes well beyond being “no more intrusive or intensive than necessary“? How many successful terrorist attacks occurred after 9/11, even before the more invasive pat-downs and body scans were brought in? None. So why would deepening the security regime be necessary?

And now that the TSA has expanded its regime beyond airports and out onto the roads of America we must ask ourselves what the endgame of all of this is? Could it be to deploy these technologies on a widespread basis throughout American cities, malls, sports stadiums and using it to scout out potential troublemakers? Would that be deemed an “administrative search” too (and thus not subject to the Fourth Amendment)?

This logic — of giving incontrovertible and unchallengeable power to our benevolent administrative overlords and then hoping for the best — takes us to a dark and nasty place. It requires us to assume they have our best interests at heart, and it requires us to assume that they will not abuse their power. The power to monitor these kinds of cues is a power that could easily be abused. A corrupt TSA agent might call a person they find attractive — even a child — out of the queue for a secondary search so that he or she can molest them with an enhanced pat-down. These new tools just enhance that power, providing a cloak of pseudo-scientific justification to the reality of citizens bowing down at the feet of their government and kissing the ring of power. Unquestioning obedience to power is a recipe for social catastrophe.

As Jefferson put it:

When governments fear the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny.

Would I be picked out of the queue at the airport? Sure. I already am for my Arabic name. But I am nervous. And the things that make me nervous? Encroaching Orwellianism. The potential for the abuse of power. The potential for tyranny. The demand of unquestioning obedience. The money spent and debt accrued to develop these technologies. The fact that our governments are obsessed with terrorism to the extent that they will put tighter and tighter controls in place at airports, even though more people are crushed to death by furniture or televisions every year than are killed in terrorist attacks, while ignoring real threats to our society like excessive systemic risk in the global financial system.

That all scares the shit out of me.

24 thoughts on “Precrime in America

  1. The TSA is a real hoot, scary but funny. The low bid folks with hight tech toys. This is sadly like the keystone cops.

  2. Pingback: Guest Post: Precrime In America » A Taoistmonk's Life

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  4. When economical shit hits the fan marching FEMA out, establishing military checkpoints and turning the fence from keeping people out, to keeping them in will be at least one of the options for the rulers. If they let the State crash hard, they will betray all their dependents in public sector jobs. It will not only wipe out all chances of reelections for them, it will be dangerous to their personal security. It will be endangering their own families. Banksters, or politicians my well be lynched after total collapse of the State.

    They are not peacefully dissolving the Empire now. Aziz, You’ve already written here a few posts about how debt won’t be paid, or trade deficit reversed with such attitude of govt and also about how american public will just not take it lying down. Seriously how much lower GPD per capita would you get after sovereign debt and currency total meltdown? So it is almost certainly going for a huge crash. They could just let it go down and later start rebuilding the Statism, or in these dark times of trials (brough about by their own policies) try something just for that kind of a situation. I think you might yet see full blown national socialism in the USA, unfortunately the rest of the World will well see it too, as it has extremely powerful military.

    • The U.S. military has the best technology but they are severely under-manned, and I think their strategic planning ability is relatively weak particularly in comparison to some of the Eurasian nations. They cannot even win cleanly against a bunch of goatherders in Afghanistan.

      • How does one win a war on “Terror”? It takes incredible hubris to declare war on the metaphysical world. Perhaps they can start a war on sadness next.

      • More manpower could be drafted. USA army may not be enough to accomplish almost impossible objective of policing the world and fighting asymmetrical conflicts with social restraints. It is way more than enough for some plunder, like blowing up Nigeria’s capital and a Nigerian regular army so they install new regime (with no pretense of democracy and nation building) and get the oil under control. Also in “the dark days to come” social restrains would be dramatically lowered. Abu Gharib was pretty brutal, but US tries to lower this kind of incidents and limit casualties. If this was not the case and you could literally burn down the village where IED was planted, you would get much “better” results against partisans. Populace would just be so scared of the invader that it would no longer harbor them. Anyway, these are just thoughts of the worst case scenario. Maybe there will be enough awareness that even if rulers would decide do go down this road, people will just not rally behind them. Also, army might just not do it (if they mostly donate to Ron Paul than they’re prolly not bloodthirsty savages 😉 ). At some point of the slide down they may just say no and stop the entire thing from happening.

  5. Hypothetical but possible scenario: Who has the best security services and platforms due to sustained years of Terrorism?

    1. Israeli “Security” company needs to make greater profits. Where is the biggest market? USA!
    2. Security company like any company lobbies its Politicians.
    3. Israeli diplomats lobby USA Diplomats. Possible corruption ensures their vested interesrs are aligned
    4. US Politicians lobby for legislative reform.
    5. Agencies have a “Framework” to comply with. Issue tender documents to world wide suppliers.
    6. Said Israeli “Security” Company tenders. Is awarded contract.
    7. Israeli security company makes profits. US Politician perceived as taking action on security fears of the public. US Citizens pay higher taxes & lose freedoms.

    Follow the money! Follow the Politician’s achievement gloats!

  6. (from the orwelian post before, thought it might apply to privacy/this post)

    Stumbled on this today

    with regards to “smart meters” being installed in north america (and I would guess the UK + AUS as well).

    see the following snipet:

    “And security is not the only technologically-based obstacle faced by smart grid proponents. In March, alarm bells were rung following current CIA Director David Patraeus’ confirmation that governments will use wireless smart appliances to spy on citizens. “Items of interest will be located, identified, monitored, and remotely controlled through technologies such as radio-frequency identification, sensor networks, tiny embedded servers, and energy harvesters,” Patraeus said at a meeting of In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture capital firm. He added that this will prompt a rethink of “our notions of identity and secrecy.”

  7. Pingback: Precrime In America: DHS new Project - Future Attribute Screening Technology. FAST - ALIPAC

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