Step To The Right And Open Your Brain: Will "Mind-Reading" Improve Airport Security?S

The TSA has come under fire in the wake of the Christmas bombing for geographical profiling, but it may be developing a new technique: mind-reading.

ABC's Matt Gutman reports that the Miami Airport is training all its employees — not just security screeners — to recognize potential terrorists by their behavior. Gutman writes,

[Miami Dade Police Officer Gene] Lopez says suspected bombers "are going to act differently because their stress level is going to be higher than the normal people you'd expect to see in an airport." They might wear heavy clothing on a summer's day, have a million-mile stare, or seem in a daze or incoherent.

Airport security experts argue that although bomb technology continues to evolve, would-be bombers will always behave suspiciously, and so behavioral screening is actually more effective than body scanners and the like. And indeed, targeting people for extra screening because of their behavior does seem more fair than singling them out for their race or country of origin. However, new, higher-tech methods may spark controversy.

One system, somewhat creepily called WeCU, would used screens at airport to display images or symbols familiar to terrorists. A combination of human security officers and sensors would then apparently be able to pick up changes in behavior, body temperature, and heart rate when would-be terrorists recognized the images, and officers could pull the offending parties aside for questioning. Another system would examine passengers for such markers of stress as pupil dilation and fidgeting — according to the AP, the developers of this system believe "that people who harbor ill will display involuntary physiological reactions that others — such as those who are stressed out for ordinary reasons, such as being late for a plane — don't." Some, however, are disturbed by the idea of the TSA looking into their thoughts as well as their pants. Says the AP,

Some critics have expressed horror at the approach, calling it Orwellian and akin to "brain fingerprinting."

For civil libertarians, attempting to read a person's thoughts comes uncomfortably close to the future world depicted in the movie "Minority Report," where a policeman played by Tom Cruise targets people for "pre-crimes," or merely thinking about breaking the law.

President Obama said, "In the never-ending race to protect our country, we have to stay one step ahead of a nimble adversary," and it may be true that hiding emotions is actually harder than hiding a bomb, if screeners actually know what to look for. Still, it's inevitable that any screening method is going to have false positives — just as innocent people are pulled aside now for wearing a metal belt buckle or being Pakistani, non-bombers will probably face questioning under the new systems for such missteps as having really sweaty palms or thinking about an extramarital affair. While it's comforting to imagine that we might develop a technique that's both totally accurate and totally fair, the reality is that at least in the near future, we're always going to have to make a choice between liberty and security.

Profiling Passengers By Actions, Not Ethnicity [ABC]
Mind-Reading Systems Could Change Air Security [AP, via FOX News]
Geographic Profiling [Daily Kos]
TSA Funding Airport Mind-Reading Scanners [The Raw Story]