Airport security screeners may soon try to read the minds of travelers to identify terrorists.
Officials of the National Aeronautics and Space
Administration have told Northwest Airlines security specialists that the agency
is developing brain-monitoring devices in cooperation with a commercial firm,
which it did not identify.
Space technology would be adapted to receive and analyze brain-wave and heartbeat patterns, then feed that data into computerized programs "to detect passengers who potentially might pose a threat," according to briefing documents obtained by The Washington Times.
NASA wants to use "noninvasive neuro-electric sensors," imbedded in gates, to collect tiny electric signals that all brains and hearts transmit. Computers would apply statistical algorithms to correlate physiologic patterns with computerized data on travel routines, criminal background and credit information from "hundreds to thousands of data sources," NASA documents say.
The notion has raised privacy concerns. Mihir Kshirsagar of the Electronic Privacy Information Center says such technology would only add to airport-security chaos. "A lot of people's fear of flying would send those meters off the chart. Are they going to pull all those people aside?"
The organization obtained documents July 31, the product of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Transportation Security Administration, and offered the documents to this newspaper.
Mr. Kshirsagar's organization is concerned about enhancements already being added to the Computer-Aided Passenger Pre-Screening (CAPPS) system. Data from sensing machines are intended to be added to that mix.
NASA aerospace research manager Herb Schlickenmaier told The Times the test proposal to Northwest Airlines is one of four airline-security projects the agency is developing. It's too soon to know whether any of it is working, he says.
"There are baby steps for us to walk through before we can make any pronouncements," says Mr. Schlickenmaier, the Washington official overseeing scientists who briefed Northwest Airlines on the plan. He likened the proposal to a super lie detector that would also measure pulse rate, body temperature, eye-flicker rate and other biometric aspects sensed remotely.
Though adding mind reading to screening remains theoretical, Mr. Schlickenmaier says, he confirms that NASA has a goal of measuring brain waves and heartbeat rates of airline passengers as they pass screening machines.
This has raised concerns that using noninvasive procedures is merely a first step. Private researchers say reliable EEG brain waves are usually measurable only by machines whose sensors touch the head, sometimes in a "thinking cap" device. "To say I can take that cap off and put sensors in a doorjamb, and as the passenger starts walking through [to allow me to say] that they are a threat or not, is at this point a future application," Mr. Schlickenmaier said in an interview.
"Can I build a sensor that can move off of the head and still detect the EEG?" asks Mr. Schlickenmaier, who led NASA's development of airborne wind-shear detectors 20 years ago. "If I can do that, and I don't know that right now, can I package it and [then] say we can do this, or no we can't? We are going to look at this question. Can this be done? Is the physics possible?"
Two physics professors familiar with brain-wave research, but not associated with NASA, questioned how such testing could be feasible or reliable for mass screening. "What they're saying they would do has not been done, even wired in," says a national authority on neuro-electric sensing, who asked not to be identified. He called NASA's goal "pretty far out."
Both professors also raised privacy concerns.
"Screening systems must address privacy and 'Big Brother' issues to the extent possible," a NASA briefing paper, presented at a two-day meeting at Northwest Airlines headquarters in St. Paul, Minn., acknowledges. Last year, the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional police efforts to use noninvasive "sense-enhancing technology" that is not in general public use in order to collect data otherwise unobtainable without a warrant. However, the high court consistently exempts airports and border posts from most Fourth Amendment restrictions on searches.
"We're getting closer to reading minds than you might suppose," says Robert Park, a physics professor at the University of Maryland and spokesman for the American Physical Society. "It does make me uncomfortable. That's the limit of privacy invasion. You can't go further than that."
"We're close to the point where they can tell to an extent what you're thinking about by which part of the brain is activated, which is close to reading your mind. It would be terribly complicated to try to build a device that would read your mind as you walk by." The idea is plausible, he says, but frightening.
At the Northwest Airlines session conducted Dec. 10-11, nine scientists and managers from NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., proposed a "pilot test" of the Aviation Security Reporting System.
NASA also requested that the airline turn over all of its computerized passenger data for July, August and September 2001 to incorporate in NASA's "passenger-screening testbed" that uses "threat-assessment software" to analyze such data, biometric facial recognition and "neuro-electric sensing."
Northwest officials would not comment.
Published scientific reports show NASA researcher Alan Pope, at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., produced a system to alert pilots or astronauts who daydream or "zone out" for as few as five seconds.
The September 11 hijackers helped highlight one weakness of the CAPPS system. They did dry runs that show whether a specific terrorist is likely to be identified as a threat. Those pulled out for special checking could be replaced by others who do not raise suspicions. The September 11 hijackers cleared security under their own names, even though nine of them were pulled aside for extra attention.