A. In George Orwell’s dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, the government attempts to curb not only the speech and actions but also the thoughts of its subjects. Unapproved thoughts are labelled ‘thought’ crime and draconically punished with the death sentence. It is undoubtedly a grim portrayal of the future. Alarmingly, it could soon become, partially at least, a reality.
B. Future policing systems aimed at identifying deviant thought processes are currently in the pipeline. The US Department of Homeland Security believes that the system will be capable of detecting ‘hostile thoughts’ in individuals passing through border controls, airports and public places.
C. Its critics believe that ‘Project Hostile Intent’, as it is called, is entering the realms of fantasy. The belief that sensors could single out ne’er-do-wells via increased pulse rate, breathing, skin temperature or fleeting facial expressions is viewed by the project’s detractors as frankly absurd and more akin to something out of the sci-fi movie Minority Report and the ‘pre-crime’ units featured in the movie.
D. The project’s promoters are not impervious to the public controversy that their proposed policing system has stirred up. So significant has the backlash been to the proposed project that it has now been dubbed the less innocuous-sounding Future Attribute Screening Technologies (FAST). Whether re-branding quells public dissent remains to be seen.
E. In the meantime, a pilot study to test the system has been undertaken. At an equestrian centre in Maryland, 140 paid volunteers walked through a machine kitted out with a battery of FAST sensors, in addition to cameras, infrared heat sensors and an eyesafe laser radar (named a Bio-Ladar) that measures pulse and breathing rate from a distance.
F. According to individual briefing, subjects acted either shifty, hostile and evasive whilst others acted the exact opposite, conforming to model citizen behaviour. DHS science spokesman, John Verrico, claims the study was ‘promising’, achieving a 78% accuracy on mal-intent and 80% on deception.
G. It could be argued, however, that such overt visual behaviour would be apparent without recourse to specialist equipment and that border control and security officers would do better to improve on honing their knowledge of body language. We judge people daily, after all, from their appearance, so this must count for something. It’s certainly a method that is a lot less obtrusive than the FAST system.
H. Finally, there is the matter of invasion of privacy. The FAST system is capable of detecting health problems such as heart murmurs in those passing through the security mechanism, Seemingly this would seem to open up a whole new moral debate. Should those previously unaware of health issues be informed, or not? Assurances have been issued, however, by proponents of the FAST system, that individual data will not be stored on the database to avoid a breach of confidentiality. But why not put such information to good effect? If it is considered permissible to analyse the very thought processes of individuals then why is the assessment of health considered too invasive? The FAST system has a long way to go yet in answering such issues adequately and becoming an acceptable method of surveillance.