According to Alexander Furnas writing at The Atlantic, our ever-inventive friends at the Department of Homeland Security and the TSA are ever on the trail of new and more intrusive ways to make travel even more unpleasant. They have developed a ‘pre-crime’ detection program (reminiscent of the film Minority Report) known as FAST (Future Attribute Screening Technology), because all bad programs need a catchy acronym to help gain acceptance.
FAST will remotely monitor physiological and behavioral cues, like elevated heart rate, eye movement, body temperature, facial patterns, and body language, and analyze these cues algorithmically for statistical aberrance in an attempt to identify people with nefarious intentions.
This all sounds super-scientific and precise.The problem is that whenever you are trying to determine the likelihood of a low-probability event with anything other than a 100% accurate predictive test, you encounter the inevitable problem of false positives.
I have written before about the false-positive problem as applied to medical diagnostic tests that can cause unnecessary fear and alarm to patients who are unaware of how to properly interpret statistical data. This same false-positive problem will inevitably overwhelm the extremely intrusive and privacy invading FAST program. Furnas runs some numbers:
Here is why: let’s assume for a moment that 1 in 1,000,000 people is a terrorist about to commit a crime. Terrorists are actually probably much much more rare, or we would have a whole lot more acts of terrorism, given the daily throughput of the global transportation system. Now lets imagine the FAST algorithm correctly classifies 99.99 percent of observations — an incredibly high rate of accuracy for any big data-based predictive model. Even with this unbelievable level of accuracy, the system would still falsely accuse 99 people of being terrorists for every one terrorist it finds. Given that none of these people would have actually committed a terrorist act yet distinguishing the innocent false positives from the guilty might be a non-trivial, and invasive task.
This is why I think that once we have locked cockpit doors, installed metal detectors, and passengers feel free to intervene to overpower aggressive fellow passengers, we have reached the level of reasonable precautions, in that there is little or no chance of an airplane being used as a weapon and the chances of dying in a hijacked plane are far less than in everyday life. We are now well past the stage where diminishing returns have set in and all we are doing is making air travel infuriating and discriminatory.
I wrote before about the debate between Sam Harris and Bruce Schneier, where the latter challenged the former’s support for the profiling of Muslims. The entire exchange can be read here. After giving all the technical reasons as to why the absurdly expensive and intrusive methods adopted by the TSA and the Department of Homeland Security are undesirable, Schneier’s conclusion is worth repeating:
But perhaps most importantly, we should refuse to be terrorized. Terrorism isn’t really a crime against people or property; it’s a crime against our minds. If we are terrorized, then the terrorists win even if their plots fail. If we refuse to be terrorized, then the terrorists lose even if their plots succeed.
We are at a small risk every day from death or injury due to criminals, maniacs, accidents, and defective products. We have learned to live with the fact that we cannot have perfect protection from such threats without making life intolerable. Similarly there is no question that there will be a small risk of terrorist attacks of varying levels of effectiveness as long as we continue to invade other countries and kill their people using drones and other means. Why cannot we live with the same tradeoffs of safety versus liberty when the source of danger is terrorism?
Stephen M. Walt recently attended a conference in Turkey and describes his own traveling experience:
Finally, I flew here on Turkish Airlines via John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. The flight was fine, but the on-the-ground experience in JFK was one of the more miserable I’ve had in the past decade. And I couldn’t help but wonder — and not for the first time — how this affects how non-Americans view the U.S. when they arrive here. So I have the following modest proposal to offer: Every U.S. congressperson should be forced to fly through JFK on their own (i.e., with no staff to help), and to go through the normal TSA procedure (no VIP lines). And then they should be flown to a really first class airport in some foreign country (say, in Singapore, or Munich), so that they can see just how decrepit U.S. transportation infrastructure has become. And a few hours interacting with the Keystone Cops at JFK’s TSA checkpoints would be instructive for them too.
I think Americans have no idea how rapidly this country’s public services and infrastructure, once the envy of the world, is deteriorating as massive amounts of resources are diverted to defense and tax cuts for the wealthy. Add to that the needless aggravation caused by the never-ending paranoia generated by the so-called ‘war on terror’ and you have a country that people will be reluctant to come to unless they have to.