August 9, 2007

Can government predict crimes before they occur?

U.S. to ratchet up surveillance with "Project Hostile Intent"

Did you know that when you go to the airport, a "behavior detection officer" might be scanning your face for hostile micro-aggressions?

You ain't seen nothing yet.

The Department of Homeland Security is set to launch Project Hostile Intent (PHI), which will use computers to scan the 400 million travelers who enter the U.S. each year for physical signs of hostile intent.

The Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency hopes to install sensors that will monitor people's pulse, perspiration rate, gait, breathing, eye movements, and other physiological signs through video and audio surveillance and by bouncing lasers or microwaves off your skin.

The full story, "Can you catch a killer before they commit a crime?" will appear in the Aug. 11 issue of New Scientist. Here’s the ominous lead-in:
"IMAGINE the scene. You arrive at New York's JFK airport, tired after a long flight, and trudge into line at passport control. As you wait, a battery of lasers, cameras, eye trackers and microphones begin secretly compiling a dossier of information about your body. The computer that is processing the data from these hidden sensors is not searching for explosives, knives, guns or contraband. Instead, it is working on a much tougher problem: whether you are thinking about committing a terrorist act, either imminently, or at sometime during your stay in the US. If the computer decides that might be your intention, you will be led off for interview with security officers."
Last night, I went to see the Bourne Supremacy, which featured the type of all-knowing, all-seeing state surveillance that is a staple of science fiction books and movies. (One of my favorite such films was 1997's Gattaca.) Watching Bourne (which I enjoyed despite its flaws), I thought the sophistication of the surveillance technology seemed a bit far-fetched. But now, I’m not so sure.

After all, New York City is poised to implement "ring of steel," a Homeland Security-funded system of interconnected license plate readers, surveillance cameras, a coordination center and roadblocks that can swing into action at a moment's notice. If the system works, I’m sure it will be coming soon to a city near you.

If "Traveling while Black" (or Arab) is perilous now, it will be a lot more difficult, and traumatic, once security forces are empowered to use subjective factors like pulse rate and gait as indicators of nefarious intent.

Photo credit: gruntzooki (bird surveillance cameras at Oakland airport), Creative Commons license. Also see Flickr's Panopticon network, dedicated to photographing surveillance cameras.