June 2, 2011

Apparently I’m a Terrorist

I hate to fly. Really, I mean it drives me absolutely mad. I know, in the analytical part of my brain, that air travel is exceptionally safe and I run more of a risk dying in the drive to work every morning. Nonetheless, other parts of my brain seize on the lack of personal control you have if something goes wrong on a plane and situations like this which, regardless of their rarity, are almost universally fatal. Ask K – she will confirm my feelings on this.

Given that state of mind, I get really nervous when I fly, particularly before I get on the plane. My pulse quickens, I probably sweat a bit. I fidget. It’s what I do. Well, good news! Apparently my nervousness will keep the Department of Homeland Security from ever letting me near a plane again! Thanks to a wondrous new tool, Future Attribute Screening Technology or FAST (via):
Like a lie detector, FAST measures a variety of physiological indicators, ranging from heart rate to the steadiness of a person's gaze, to judge a subject's state of mind. But there are major differences from the polygraph. FAST relies on non-contact sensors, so it can measure indicators as someone walks through a corridor at an airport, and it does not depend on active questioning of the subject.
'Cause, you know, polygraphs are so reliable.  The object is to “spot people who are intending to commit a terrorist act.” Or, you know, nervous people in general. Although it’s been lab tested with an alleged 70% accuracy rate and is currently being used in the field at undisclosed locations, scientists are skeptical:
Steven Aftergood, a senior research analyst at the Federation of American Scientists, a think-tank based in Washington DC that promotes the use of science in policy-making, is pessimistic about the FAST tests. He thinks that they will produce a large proportion of false positives, frequently tagging innocent people as potential terrorists and making the system unworkable in a busy airport. 'I believe that the premise of this approach — that there is an identifiable physiological signature uniquely associated with malicious intent — is mistaken. To my knowledge, it has not been demonstrated,' he says. 'Without it, the whole thing seems like a charade.'
Indeed, the system seems to be designed to generate false positives. Lie detectors, of course, can be beaten by someone trained to do so. Why won’t real terrorists train to avoid FAST detection? As Ed puts it at Dispatches:
How in the world do you calibrate the measurements to distinguish between someone who is going to blow up an airplane from someone who is merely terrified to fly? Are you going to grab every person in the airport that shows signs of nervousness? Good luck with that.
I don’t know whether to be offended by yet another government overreach in the War on Terra or thankful that I’ve got a new excuse not to fly. Maybe I should send somebody a fruit basket?

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