Airports look to end bias

The days of long lines, liquid bans and pat-downs at airport security may come to an end if a new Homeland Security-funded project, the Future Attribute Screening Technology, is successful.

The security system uses sensors to pick up natural signals emanating from bodies, such as heart rate, eye movement, body temperature and breathing rate. The system can analyze the physiological signs and then determine the likelihood that a passenger will commit acts of violence — a revolutionary attempt to reduce the incidence of racial profiling and screener bias at the airport.

Its creators claim it will help TSA agents decipher which individuals need secondary screening, making the entire security process more time efficient. Preliminary tests in which actors played the roles of regular travelers and terrorists have shown the system picked up which individuals were dangerous and needed extra screening 78 percent of the time.

Project managers hope to raise the percentage after analyzing the results of the first tests and want to have the program running error-free and ready for field testing by 2011.

Because FAST is not based on an individual’s physical appearance, but uses biological factors in making its judgment, every passenger is given equal consideration. This would be a triumph for the screening process, as FAST attempts to remove any possible bias or racial profiling that might be inherent in the current screening system.

The variety of sensors includes many state of the art devices to gather body signals. An electronic sensory balancing board is used for passengers to stand on while being asked questions by security staff.

The system records the movements made on the board and computes them along with other sensory information for the passenger. Other sensors include thermal devices that measure body heat and eye-safe lasers that gather information on a passenger’s rate of blinking and pupil dilation.

Despite the potential success FAST can bring in terms of airport safety, many have voiced concerns over what they see as an invasion of privacy.

“Nobody has the right to look at my intimate bodily functions, my breathing, my perspiration rate, my heart rate, from afar,” said Joe Stanley of the American Civil Liberties Union in an interview with CNN.

Stanley also noted that FAST could potentially reveal physical flaws or illnesses that passengers would rather keep private.

FAST project manager Robert Burns responded to the privacy concerns by saying that the information gathered is not stored or linked to a specific identity, but rather is only revealed to the screener if the information indicates a high threat level.

“We’re looking at signals you give off naturally,” he said in an interview with CNN. “We’re not asking for any personal information. We’re not asking anything about you.”

The TSA is not the only organization coming up with creative answers to security threats. The Los Angeles Times reported Monday that the Transportation Security Laboratory devotes its time to dreaming up easily hidden explosive devices, and figuring out how to test for them in airports.

Since the attacks of 9/11, terrorists have tried using bombs in shoes — which resulted in the requirement that all passengers take off their shoes to have them X-rayed. Terrorists have also tried to smuggle liquid explosives on planes; now there is a ban on carrying more than 3 oz. of liquid on board.

It has always been security that has modified itself after a threat was exposed, but finally security is thinking ahead, not in retrospect.

In the case of the TSA, however, the technological developments are doubly impressive for their intent to remove personal bias.

FAST is an innovative program that is fit to combat the threats in the 21st century. Rather than stick to old methods of security investigation that center around the use of outdated metal detectors, old-fashioned pat-downs and racial profiling, the methods FAST uses to pick out threatening passengers are based on scientific and bodily evidence.

Unfortunately, airport security today relies somewhat on arbitrary determinants. FAST, on the other hand, has the capability to judge passengers equally based on natural human functions, creating a more objective approach to safety.

It’s time to take the next step in airport security.

Angad Singh is a sophomore majoring in international relations and communication.