'Terrorist Intent' Detector Set for Demo Next Year
The Future Attribute Screening Technology, or FAST, is designed to spot terrorists, or more specifically, people who are thinking about carrying out terrorist acts.
"The theory we're looking at here is [whether] there's a way to look at you, and only you, in a specific situation, and based on your presentation, make an assessment that you're showing indicators of what we call malintent," Robert Burns, the deputy director of the Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency, told AOL News. "Malintent, as defined by the problem, is the intention or desire to cause harm."
Burns, who is also the program manager for FAST, says Homeland Security is looking to conduct a real-world demonstration next year. Though the demonstration site has not been selected, it could be at any public place that requires security screening, such as a border crossing or large public event.
The FAST system works by using a combination of sensors to measure a person's heart rate, breathing, blinking, body movement, and even subtle changes in skin moisture, in order to detect specific emotional states. The idea, somewhat similar to the traditional polygraph, is to correlate those signals with possible deception.
Unlike the polygraph, however, the FAST program is trying to discern not just deception, but intent -- it aims to find people who intend to commit a criminal act in the future. Also unlike the polygraph, which requires people to be attached to sensors, FAST is trying to spot the would-be criminals as they pass through a screening portal.
Even by Burns' admission, that's a tall order, and the program is not without critics.
IEEE Spectrum, an engineering magazine, picked the "quixotic" program as a 2010 technology loser, and privacy advocates have attacked Homeland Security for trying to create what they claim is an Orwellian program designed to peer into people's inner-most thoughts.
Burns counters that FAST is merely a system for primary screening, not a mind-reader, and the technology is intended to re-establish some of the freedoms that have been lost in the years following 9/11 by making screening less intrusive. "My goal here is to be able to let my 5-year old go through screening with me, as opposed to pushing her through by herself," he says.
But even polygraph experts have questioned whether "malintent" is something that can really be distinguished from other emotions. David Raskin, a professor emeritus at the University of Utah and a longtime polygraph expert, pointed to the lack of published data to support the theory. "It's an interesting speculation, with very little scientific basis," he says.
Dan Martin, a psychologist who serves as the director of research for FAST, says that distinguishing malintent from other emotion, such as fear or nervousness, is precisely the goal of ongoing research. "If you're trying to figure out who is upset, it's not going to work," he says. "However, what we do is take each person and see how they change related to stimuli."
The program, even by its advocates' admission, faces a host of technical and scientific challenges. Currently, the sensors are housed in a semitrailer, which means that for the near future, it is more appropriate as an added layer of security, rather than something that could be seamlessly integrated into screening.
The more daunting task will be the second phase of FAST, when the goal is to take away the interactive questioning and rely on a simple stimulus, such as a picture or audio cue, to try to elicit a measurable response. That phase of the program is slated for completion in 2015.
Burns emphasizes that FAST, for now, is a research project and there are no firm plans to permanently deploy the system. The program, which is receiving about $10 million a year in funding, is supported out of a Homeland Security budget line item intended specifically for high-risk science and technology projects.
But even those who support the research wonder whether the technology will ever make it into airports.
"The major challenge is that the physiological responses that are traditionally measured and being proposed occur in many situations other than malintent and deception," says Michael Dawson, a psychology professor at the University of Southern California who was invited by Homeland Security to a meeting to review the program.
"I do worry about the adaptability of the technology to a situation like the airport," Dawson says. "It's an interesting technology and I would want to see it pursued, but I don't know if that's the application where it'll be found to be useful."