FAST: a machine to detect people who will soon break the law
From "Minority Report" science-fiction movie to fact, scientists working for U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) tried to predict the future at an undisclosed location in a northeastern metropolis.
They used no psychics or crystal balls, just a battery of sensors designed to determine human intention through the subtlest of changes in heart rate, gaze, and other physiological markers. The sensors are called Future Attribute Screening Technology (FAST
), a $20 million federal project that aims to highlight airport passengers whose bodies betray hostile intentions. FAST has the potential to detect terrorists in the final minutes before they act, but critics warn that the system may have other consequences, such as flagging innocent travelers through false positives while letting some with ill intent sneak by through false negatives. The DHS, for its part, maintains that FAST is merely improving on a far older and more fallible crime predictor: human judgment.
DHS internal documents indicated a controversial program designed to predict whether a person will commit a crime was already being tested on some people voluntarily. Unlike Tom Cruise movie called "Minority Report" that enlisted psychics to predict crimes (Pre Crime), DHS was betting on algorithms: it created a prototype screening facility that will use factors such as ethnicity, gender, breathing, and heart rate to "detect cues indicative of mal-intent".
In the document, FAST program manager Robert Middleton Jr. refers to a limited initial trial using DHS employees as test subjects. Middleton said FAST sensors will non-intrusively collect video images, audio recordings, and psychophysiological measurements from the employees, with a subgroup of employees singled out, with their permission, for more rigorous evaluation. It was designed to track and monitor, among other inputs, body movements, voice pitch changes, prosody changes (alterations in the rhythm and intonation of speech), eye movements, body heat changes, and breathing patterns. Occupation and age are also considered. A government source said that blink rate and pupil variation are measured too.
DHS science spokesman John Verrico stated that preliminary
testing had demonstrated 78% accuracy on mal-intent detection and 80% on deception. However, this was not a controlled, double-blind study, and researchers from Lawrence University and the Federation of American Scientists have questioned its validity without further evidence.
The technology would mostly be used at airports, borders, and special events. The mobile units transmit data to analysts, who use a system called MALINTENT
to recognize, define and measure seven primary emotions and emotional cues that are reflected in contractions of facial muscles. Results are transmitted back to screeners.
Calling the methods as similar to Lie Detector, some scientists question whether there really are unique signatures for malintent — DHS' term for the intention to cause harm — that can be differentiated from the normal anxieties of travel.
"Even having an iris scan or fingerprint read at immigration is enough to raise the heart rate of most legitimate travelers," says Tom Ormerod
from the Investigative Expertise Unit at Lancaster University.