I travel a lot; too much really. I see more movies
on airplanes than I do on video, and some months I spend more nights
in hotels than in my own bed. Like most travelers, I've been understanding
of the delays caused by new security precautions in the US. I think
it's sad that America has reached a point where we must examine
everyone's shoes before allowing them to board a plane, but if it
helps keep us safe I'm all for it.
I am much less reassured by some of the more technical security
Companies such as Visionics and Viisage develop face-recognition
software. They claim that when hooked up to airport security monitors,
their products can pick terrorists out of the crowd with over 99%
accuracy. The promise is appealing, but there are three main problems
with this technology.
First, it just doesn't work. Actual tests using airport employees
demonstrated accuracy of only about 50%, and that was using high-quality,
recent photographs. Second, a major airport handles hundreds of
thousands of people every day. Even if these systems someday achieve
99% accuracy, they would be falsely identifying a "terrorist"
every few minutes. Security personal would either learn to ignore
these systems or would wind up running around like the Keystone
The third, and perhaps most subtle, problem with this approach
is that we really don't know who the terrorists are. It's not that
FBI can't locate them, they just don't know who they are looking
for. In fact, some of the 9/11 hijackers bought tickets and boarded
the planes using their real names.
Despite the problems, these systems are being rolled out in US
airports. Other than the false sense of security, these systems
are simply a huge but relatively harmless waste of money.
People have always been captivated by the notion that
computers can be smarter than we are. Stories about stock-picking
neural networks and medical expert systems that diagnose diseases
better than physicians are perennial news favorites. Such technologies
inevitably prove useful under limited and controlled conditions,
but wind up having little or no widespread utility.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) will be taking
this notion to a ridiculous extreme early next year when they roll
out Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System II (CAPPSII).
CAPPSII is a massive expansion of the existing passenger screening
network. The TSA claims the system will screen passengers automatically
by accessing dozens of public and private databases and use artificial
intelligence to identify the terrorists.
It won't work, of course. Computers can learn to diagnose diabetes
because there are clear symptoms of the disease that can be programmed
in. Stock picking computers actually run very well-defined trading
system models developed and refined by human beings. With terrorists,
however, the best minds in the field can't begin to identify distinguishing
traits. It is ridiculous to think that a computer system examining
a random collection of data will be able to spot them.
CAPPS has never and probably will never catch a terrorist, but
once deployed its mission will be quickly expanded to include all
sorts of "worthy causes." For example, CAPPSII will certainly
be used to stop people who have an outstanding warrant -- and what's
wrong with that?
CAPPSII could also be used to find people behind on their alimony
payments. Come to think of it, since the state DMV databases are
connected, airports could become a convenient way to collect unpaid
tickets. And then there's the IRS.
CAPPSII is being deployed, it has tremendous momentum
behind it, and there is no public accountability. Unless something
changes, airports will be no safer, but will become a central clearinghouse
for every state and federal agency who thinks you own them money.
The national No Fly List is a fairly low-tech security
measure, but it best illustrates the failings of most technological
approaches to finding terrorists. A dozen or so agencies add names
to The List including CIA, FBI, INS and State Department, but no
one agency is responsible for administering it. If your name somehow
winds up on The List, there is no official way to have it removed
or even find out how it got there.
The List has not yet snared any terrorists, but it has resulted
in the detention of quite a few peace-activitis and members of left-leaning
organizations; including one 74-year-old nun. Again, no one can
say exactly why these people are being detained or delayed, and
not a few angry voices are citing political or even malicious intent.
I think the answer is more innocent, but no less dangerous. Again,
the problem is that there is no clear profile of a terrorist. About
all the experts can seem to agree on is that these people certainly
don't think like we do. This may sound simplistic, but the people
who end up on The List are not those whose have a history of violence
or illegal activity, but those whose thinking is most unlike that
of federal law enforcement officers.
I think that law-enforcement personal honestly believe that the
people they place on The List pose a threat, but the only effect
The List has had so far is to deny people the right to travel because
of their political views.
This has to change.
The cornerstone of any free society is the freedom to disagree
with authority. Unfortunately, all of human history shows that when
people are scared, those who are different will fall under suspicion.
Technology itself provides no solutions. Technology will not make
us safe. Technology only amplifies and dehumanizes human bias.