Two years ago in this column, I wrote that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was deploying “Behavior Detection Officers” (BDOs) at America’s airports to watch for “suspicious” behavior exhibited by people at those facilities. The program purported to teach undercover TSA employees to scan people at airports – not just passengers waiting to pass through security, but everyone – for tell-tale signs of nervousness, which could then lead to their being interrogated and possibly arrested.
I complained at the time of this significant expansion of TSA’s jurisdiction (the “mission creep” that seems to bedevil virtually every government agency), and reminded readers of the evils of attempting to “profile” people based on behavior characteristics.
Earlier this year, I wrote again about TSA’s fixation with technology, as evidenced by its plan to greatly expand the number of full-body x-ray machines at airports.
Well, those loveable folks at TSA (and their bosses at the parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security) have taken yet another step in their relentless drive to bring “1984” front and center to America’s airports. Eager always to take advantage of the willingness of passengers to surrender all sense of privacy if made to feel safe, DHS is spending millions of our tax dollars to develop technology that would remotely monitor certain bodily functions and alert TSA employees whenever someone is exuding signs of nervousness.
Were this not a serious — and costly – effort on the part of DHS, it would be humorous. But it’s not funny, and someone in the Administration ought to put a stop to it now. TSA, for one, needs to be reminded of its job and its jurisdiction. TSA is supposed to ensure that passengers boarding commercial aircraft are not boarding with explosives, firearms or other weapons. Its job is not to practice “robo-scanning” or “behavior detection” of people simply because they happen to have a need to enter an airport or take a commercial airline flight.
People should not be subject to having their eye movements, their skin temperature, their heartbeat, their perspiration, their breathing patterns, or any other bodily functions remotely scanned and analyzed by some government employee. Yet this is precisely what the project manager for the Department’s robo-screening project, Robert Burns, is proposing to do; and he’s already spent $20 million of our money playing around with such nonsense.
Never at a loss to come up with snazzy acronyms for its projects, DHS has labeled this robo-scanning project “FAST” (short for “Future Attribute Screening Technology”). One of the researchers proudly claimed in a recent news story highlighting the FAST program, that the results so far are “significantly better than chance.” Boy, that’s an impressive score.
Already, DHS is considering uses for the FAST technology for events far from airports; suggesting its benefits for deployment at sporting events, government buildings, subways, and conventions.
One of the more intriguing aspects of this program is the fact that, according to its manager, the technology and its human screeners would be looking not only for persons exhibiting “elevated levels” of those bodily functions deemed suspicious (including “fidgeting”). They would also target people not exhibiting such signals. In the view of project manager Burns, failure to appear nervous as evidenced by monitored bodily functions, “is just as indicative of being something that has to be resolved,” as is the person who exhibits those signs.
In other words, you can’t win. If your bodily functions convey evidence of nervousness, you would catch the attention of the TSA screeners; but if you don’t exhibit any such signs as monitored by the machinery, you’d fall within their sights as well, because you’d be presumed to be deliberately attempting to avoid detection.
All this is starting to give me a headache; and that also would probably set off a red light on TSA’s robo-screen control panel.