David Kirkpatrick

June 2, 2010

Searching for “mal-intent”

I have to admit, stories like this really set off klaxon alarm bells in terms of civil liberties and what looks a lot like a slippery slope of pseudoscience. Particularly when talking about trained security teams pulling 152,000 people out of airport lines over the last few years leading to over 1000 arrests. Arrests for outstanding warrants and immigration violations — no terrorism arrests, even though screeners did miss at least 16 actual terrorists.

I’m guessing if you randomly pulled that many travelers you’d easily get that many hits for run-of-the-mill violations. You’d probably even randomly catch a few terrorists. I think it’s safe to say I have very serious reservations of the efficacy of screening for mal-intent, and even greater reservations on how that screening weakens civil liberties and personal privacy.

From the link:

If Bob Burns is correct, terrorists may betray themselves someday by jiggling on a Nintendo Wii balance board, blinking too fast, curling a lip like Elvis — or doing nothing at all. Burns and his team of scientists are researching whether video game boards, biometric sensors and other high-tech devices can be used to detect distinct nonverbal cues from people who harbor “mal-intent,” or malicious intent.

“We’re looking pre-event,” said Burns, the No. 2 at the Homeland Security Advanced Research Project Agency, a counterpart of the fabled Pentagon agency that developed Stealth aircraft and the Internet.

“We’re trying to detect a crime before it has occurred.”

OK, roll the sci-fi thriller “Minority Report,” in which Tom Cruise and other “pre-crime” cops use psychic visions to arrest murderers before they kill. Or maybe “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” a George Clooney comedy inspired by real military experiments with supposedly psychic soldiers.

The work on mal-intent, which has cost $20 million so far, represents the future in screening: trying to find the bomber, not just the bomb.

“Sometimes people look at our projects and say, ‘This is crazy,'” conceded Burns, a former submarine weapons officer.

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