September 7, 2006 4:00 AM PDT

Post-9/11 antiterror technology: A report card

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The masses sit through irksome lines at security checkpoints. But people who pay $80 a year and submit a wealth of personal information (including fingerprint and iris scans) to the government, and clear a background check conducted by the Transportation Security Administration, can sail through airport security.

This program is run by a private company called Verified Identity Pass and has been operational since July 2005 at some airports. Last week, the company announced it would expand its registered traveler program to British Airways Terminal 7 at John F. Kennedy International Airport this fall.

Melissa Ngo, an attorney at the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) in Washington, D.C., says: "Bad guys who don't have previous ties to terrorism can pass the background check and then fast-track through airport security. If certain security procedures work to reduce crime, then they should be applied to everyone, not just to those who can't or won't pay $80 per year for travel convenience."

3. Backscatter X-ray: Comic books in the 1950s promised to sell "X-Ray" specs that could see through clothing.

Now that not-terribly-accurate promise is approaching reality, thanks to a technology called backscatter X-ray. Its proponents say it's better at detecting weapons in carry-on luggage. But privacy advocates say it can show body contours that are so exact it amounts to a "virtual strip search." It's already being used in some airports.

"Keeping the radiation dose low enough to skim the skin's surface means that backscatter cannot detect weapons hidden in body folds, which would be found during a physical inspection," Ngo said. "It's unfortunate that Homeland Security money is being spent on backscatter even though the government complains it doesn't have enough money to screen all carry-on and checked baggage and air cargo."

The best way might be to let passengers decide: Some airlines could use backscatter X-ray technology if they chose, and some would use pat-down techniques. But instead, the TSA and local governments tend to set one-size-fits-all rules. (For its part, the TSA says backscatter technology is being used with a privacy algorithm to "eliminate much of the detail shown in the images of the individual while still being effective.")

4. "Brain fingerprinting": Lawrence Farwell invented what he calls "brain fingerprinting," which tries to measure whether the mind recognizes familiar stimuli such as words or photographs.

It relies on the discovery that an electrical signal known as P300 tends to be emitted from a brain about three-tenths of a second after it recognizes a familiar stimulus. The idea is that a murderer's brain will emit P300 if he's shown the victim's face or the crime scene. (The CIA gave Farwell about $1 million in research expenses.)

Farwell created a company called Brain Fingerprinting Laboratories to commercialize the idea and has met with some success in law enforcement circles. An article this year on Officer.com says the "technology has the potential to be applicable in an overwhelming number of cases."

One judge in Iowa has ruled that the technique is admissible. The Iowa Supreme Court subsequently said in 2003 that Farwell's testing of the brain of Terry Harrington, a convicted murderer, showed "that Harrington's brain did not contain information about (the) murder. On the other hand, Farwell testified, testing did confirm that (the murderer's) brain contained information consistent with his alibi." The Supreme Court granted Harrington a new trial--based on the fact that the police withheld evidence, not because of the brain fingerprinting.

Does it really work? FBI agents who worked with Farwell think so. At least one judge was sufficiently credulous.

But a government report includes an important caution from J. Peter Rosenfeld of Northwestern University's psychology department who has done extensive research into P300. First, Rosenfeld says, there has been a lack of peer-reviewed studies. The report adds: "Rosenfeld does not believe that the developer had done the extensive validation of the test items for field use...Rosenfeld questioned the developer's claim of a 100 percent accuracy rate. For example, he raised concerns regarding whether the developer omitted inconclusive results from the totals."

5. DNA dragnets: In the last few years, as DNA testing kits have become cheaper, police have begun to engage in widescale testing of criminal suspects.

In one case scheduled to be heard by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday, police in Baton Rouge, La., demanded that 1,200 men provide DNA samples without seeking a court order. Shannon Kohler refused to provide a DNA sample. Police retaliated by naming Kohler as a suspect in a rape-murder case and sought a search warrant. He was eventually cleared.

Kohler is not alone. When a DNA dragnet is set up, police tend to view anyone who won't voluntarily participate as a suspect. It's also not clear what happens to the DNA sample. Will it be destroyed when the investigation is over or kept on file forever?

DNA dragnets have nabbed the wrong suspects before. In Miami, a man was incorrectly charged with rape. In Kansas, the "BTK Killer" was located through traditional police work--even though 1,300 men were tested in the DNA dragnet. Their DNA samples were all kept on file.

CNET News.com's Anne Broache and Michael Kanellos contributed to this report.

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8 comments

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Automating DNA Sweeps
I'm sure someday we'll see "sniffers" that can detect a person's DNA and instantaneously match him or her to a target list.

Shoot, you could perhaps even remotely target terrorists with miniscule drones equipped with such technology.

Problem is, just who would use it...the most famous fictional examples come from "Dune"; a powerful trade house named Harkonnen uses such technology in small "hunter/seeker" drones to kill their enemies.

Given such steller examples of business amorality as those exhibited by Skilling and Lay of Enron, Patricia Dunn of HP, the Hunt brothers in the silver market, T. Boone Pickens' current attempts to purchase and monopolize groundwater rights in Texas so he can squeeze Texas cities for an unavoidable human requirement, and on and on and on...

Well, I'd be lying if I said "I can't believe any business would ever attempt to gain some commercial advantage by eliminating a competitor or to silence a potential whistleblower using such technology"...

Paranoia? Damn, I hope so...
Posted by missingamerica (6147 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Discriminatory Remark - Smarter Translation Software...
I find it very racist, discriminatory, and anti-Islamic for you to suggest that Arabic is a language associated with terrorist groups. That was very inappropriate for you to even suggest that. Arabic is one of the most beautiful, powerful, and rich languages that existed in the past and exists today. Just because there are some crazy nuts (ie: terrorists) who happen to also speak Arabic does not mean that Arabic (or Islam) is associated with terrorism.
When Timothy Mcveigh carried out the Oklahoma City Bombing, should we then assume that English (or Christianity) is associated with terrorism?! Of course not, that would be ridiculous!!!
I can see the mass media has worked wonders on brainwashing you. I hope you can see through that, and I hope you can apologize to the thousands of readers who were offended by that comment.
Thank you for your time.
Posted by zoomy1 (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Wake Up And Smell The Camel Dung
[i] &very racist, discriminatory, and anti-Islamic for you to suggest that Arabic is a language associated with terrorist groups.[/i]

Reset, [b]zoomy1,[/b] and reread the section [b]4. Smarter Translation Software.[/b] I did, and saw nothing in it that was racist, discriminatory, and anti-Islamic.

The U.S. already has rapid and accurate real-time [i]Smarter English Translation Software[/i] because [i]English[/i] requires no translation into [i]English[/u] except for a few words of [i]British English[/i] into [i] American English.[/i] Clearly, the U.S. has English speaking [i]Terrorists[/i] solidly covered regarding [i]Translation Software.[/i] Have you ever heard of [i]CARNIVORE, ECHELON [/i] and the new one no one has heard of yet?

The [i]Terrorists[/i] talk, [i]Uncle Sam[/i] listens and the [i] bad word users[/i] get an early wake up call, ride in a [i]Black Helicopter[/i] and an all expense paid trip to GITMO or Leavenworth.

I expect the U.S. probably has [i]Smarter Translation Software[/i] to handle rapid and accurate real-time translation of Literary Arabic [اللغة العربية الفصحى‎ (fushā)] into American English, but for the range of localized colloquial, dialectal and regional varieties of Arabic as well as Pashtu, Somali and other languages it is another story.

Then there is [i]Farsi,[/i] the spoken language of Iran, which is not Arabic at all, but Persian. If they do not have [i]Smarter Translation Software[/i] for Farsi, it is needed.

Be the nice person that I know you are. Pull in you horns, and give Mrs. McCullaghs [i]baby boy,[/i] Declan, a little slack. JP B-)
Posted by Catgic (106 comments )
Link Flag
Politically Incorrect
It is comments like these that isolate nations, religions and people. Not the remarks of the article, but of the reader. Do most know Arabic is backwards (read right to left). And ALL languages are beautiful, not just a few. You are prejudicing your language against others. How about the reader apologizing to those that died because they DIDN'T understand why they were victims of some "crazy nut" ? It is the Arab-muslim world that needs to clean up its own. If others have to get involved and intervene, then they will do it by their rules, not yours.
Posted by Below Meigh (249 comments )
Link Flag
Five Of One, Half Dozen Minus One Of The Other
Some [anti-terror technologies] appear to be particularly useful and deserve to spread. Others raise privacy concerns and may not be all that effective.

Kudos to you, Declan, as well as to contributing reporters Anne Broache and Michael Kanellos on an insightful camels nose sniff under the anti-terror technologies tent. You all did a fine job of discussing and highlighting the key technical and societal issues associated with anti-terror technology.

Let me offer a couple of comments.

About 15 years ago, the Saudi monarch and ruler at that time, King Fahd, took action to spend multi-millions of Riyals [& Dollars] to have Saudi Royal International Airports upgraded with the same kinds of anti-terrorist chemical sniffing, backscatter X-ray, neutron-based baggage/cargo, video screening, detection, surveillance and monitoring equipment technologies you discussed in and have woven into your article. It seems that, at least publicly, the Saudi Arabs were acutely aware of the [i]Osama Bin Lada Arab Terrorist Threat[/i] well over a decade before we were in the U.S.

Regarding [i]Registered Traveler Certification - Clearance[/i] or [i]Clear" Registered Traveler[/i] [ <a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.flyclear.com/" target="_newWindow">http://www.flyclear.com/</a> ], as you wrote [commercial] air travelers are gradually separating into a two-class hierarchy&

If a citizen [i]voluntarily donates[/i] $80 [http://$79.95|http://$79.95], along with submitting an in depth chronological, medical and behavioral personal history accompanied by their fingerprints and personal biological information that results in a clear security background check, they can sail through airport security around the [i]Security Screening Slog[/i] rope-lines. No more expending mega-minutes standing queued up waiting in long lines in front of a TSA screening station, time that once used to be spent in genteel relaxation in the Airlines Club-Lounge. No more having to drag your bags and slog along with a [i]Cheshire Smile[/i] as you listen to someones [i]Aunt Martha[/i] telling you how pleased she is with all the TSA and airport security  even if it takes a little longer.

It is not likely that [i]voluntarily donating[/i] $80 a year to become a [i]Registered Traveler[/i] and submitting to an ongoing security background check and follow-on surveillance, monitoring and tracking of your personal life style, behavior and habits will remain truly [i]voluntary[/i] for much longer. At some point in the near future, as the governments Total Information Awareness citizen database system matures and gains reliable nationwide real-time capacity and capability, everyone who wants to travel will be required to have a valid [i]REAL ID[/i] with a current [i]Clear" Registered Traveler Certification  Endorsement.[/i]

No one, small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, shall be able to travel save he or she that has a [i]REAL ID[/i] with [i]Clear" Registered Traveler Certification  Endorsement.[/i] JP B-)

Joseph Poliakon
Space Coast, Florida
Posted by Catgic (106 comments )
Reply Link Flag
SWANsat - Going Wireless
Worldwide satellite internet broadband delivered to/from a blackberry-type handset is an amazing leap forward. The US Government will own the power plant that drives the communications payload. Capacity, they say, is 600 million connections per satellite.

swansat.com &#38; iostarcorp.com
Posted by swansat_kaching (20 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I hope Americans realise
that they are on a fast track to a high-tech police state, the likes
of which would have made Adolf Hitler blush with envy. I hope
you good people will intervene, otherwise you will loose your
personal freedoms.
Posted by Tui Pohutukawa (366 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Re: I hope Americans realise
I hope we do too. The problem is that so many people are frightened, and as such are willing to do whatever it takes to alleviate said fear. In addition to that, our shrewd as hell government knows it, and is willing to do whatever it takes to manipulate it (and <em>they've</em> got a practically unlimited budget!).

We need more people willing to accept the risk of living in a free society. If everybody would rather be secure, I can understand that, but security is about as far from freedom as you can get. If we are going to live in the manner in which this country was founded to provide, we have to accept that people will get hurt, people will get killed, and it is not always avoidable. Ideally, we will be able to come up with ways to minimize occurances of such terrible things without continuing to jeopardize our once unassailable beliefs.

(This turned out far longer than I intended!)
Posted by normalityrelief (4 comments )
Reply Link Flag
 

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