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Homeland Security bungles 'pre-crime' tech test docs

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The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been testing its behavioral monitoring CCTV system on the public without the proper paperwork.

The Future Attribute Screening Technology (FAST) system uses high-resolution cameras and other “non-invasive” sensors to monitor human behavior, including “cardiovascular signals, pheromones, electrodermal activity, and respiratory measurements,” according to a 2008 DHS report on the project. This data is then fed into a computer system running matching algorithms that suggests which people should have their collars felt by local security.

The principle behind the whole system is that people with malicious intent will exhibit certain behaviors and biological responses that can be identified. The idea is to put these systems into US border-access points, and it’s a techniques which works very well in Israel – with the rather significant difference that the Israelis use people to do the analysis, rather than relying on software.

FAST has been under development for four years, under the auspices of the DHS Advanced Research Agency, and testing on the public was conducted this summer in the US Northeast. However, the DHS neglected to sort out the proper paperwork before using people as lab bunnies, according to documentation from a Freedom of Information request submitted by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).

“Under the existing statutes, if they roll out a new technology like this there’s a need for a privacy-impact assessment,” Ginger McCall, open government counsel at EPIC, told The Register. “They didn’t do that.”

“It seems they would have a very high false positive rate, the best they say was that it’s 70 per cent effective,” McCall said. “When you consider the kinds of suspicions they raise it’s a lot of innocent people getting stopped.”

Well, a lot of innocent people might get stopped if the system were ever put into actual use. There are no "innocents" involved in current testing, however. A DHS source familiar with the testing told The Register that all the research was conducted on volunteers who were fully aware they were being watched. None of the data was stored after analysis, nor could it be tied to individual subjects.

In fact, the happy volunteers were even provided with tasty refreshments – no skulduggery here.

Our source said that the research – which monitors changes in thermal skin conductance, heart rate, respiration, pupil variation, and blink rate – is in the very early conceptual stages, and is in no way close to deployment.

The heavily-redacted testing report shows that around 200 people were put through the system on a two-day test run in Boston earlier this year. Judging from the photos in the report, the system isn’t ready for open deployment, but was instead used in a relatively enclosed space, suggesting a scanning unit similar to the millimeter wave detectors used today.

Hewing to the FAST facts as detailed in the 2008 report, deputy DHS press secretary Peter Boogaard told The Register in an email: "The Department's Science and Technology Directorate has conducted preliminary research in operational settings to determine the feasibility of using non-invasive physiological and behavioral sensor technology and observational techniques to detect signs of stress, which are often associated with intent to do harm.

"The FAST program is only in the preliminary stages of research and there are no plans for acquiring or deploying this type of technology at this time." ®

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