Communion Of Dreams

Something to look forward to.
May 30, 2011, 11:22 am
Filed under: Bruce Schneier, Civil Rights, Failure, Health, Privacy, PZ Myers, Science, tech, Travel

I just took my blood pressure. Because of past problems with hypertension, I keep a pretty close eye on it. Here are three readings, using a very good automatic digital monitor:

  • 123/85
  • 121/88
  • 115/81

This is how they usually recommend doing it – taking several readings over the course of a few minutes, to help get a good sense of where your bp actually is since there are natural variations and just one reading can be misleading. And those numbers are pretty good – showing that my blood pressure is under control thanks to a combination of diet, exercise, and drugs.

Happily, my doctor trusts me to keep an eye on my bp, because whenever I go in to the clinic, my numbers jump. The readings above would probably be a good 20/10 points higher, if not a lot more. See, I have a mild case of “white coat syndrome”. I just dislike almost any kind of testing by strangers like that (one of the reasons I am happy to work on my own, in my own business, and on my own time).

I also hate traveling. Well, more accurately, I hate having to put up with the hassles and intrusion on my privacy that goes along with dealing with airport security. Flying is fine. So is driving around in a new place, seeing the sights, experiencing a new culture. But dealing with the TSA or any similar entity? Gah – I hate it with a passion.

And if the latest debacle of an idea to provide ‘security’ comes to pass, I’m probably going to hate it even more:

Terrorist ‘pre-crime’ detector field tested in United States

Planning a sojourn in the northeastern United States? You could soon be taking part in a novel security programme that can supposedly ‘sense’ whether you are planning to commit a crime.

Future Attribute Screening Technology (FAST), a US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) programme designed to spot people who are intending to commit a terrorist act, has in the past few months completed its first round of field tests at an undisclosed location in the northeast, Nature has learned.

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.


Of course, 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.”

As well they should be. Even the DHS spokesperson says that the FAST system was only “70% accurate” in lab tests. As PZ Myers notes:

Feeling anxious about the job interview you’re flying to? You will be strip-searched. Angry because the incompetent boob at the ticket counter bumped you from your flight? Your body cavities must be inspected. Steely in your resolve, forthright in your determination to strike the infidel? Welcome aboard!

More security theatre. Wonderful.

Jim Downey

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