Wednesday, January 02, 2008

You look suspicious

Updated But we won't tell you what it is about you that makes us think so.

Just over a week ago, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported on a program under which travelers
at Sea-Tac [Seattle-Tacoma Airport] and dozens of other major airports across America are being scrutinized by teams of TSA behavior-detection officers specially trained to discern the subtlest suspicious behaviors. ...

[A] central task is to recognize microfacial expressions - a flash of feelings that in a fraction of a second reflects emotions such as fear, anger, surprise or contempt, said Carl Maccario, who helped start the program for TSA.
The name of the program is SPOT, or Screening Passengers by Observation Technique, and is intended, so TSA officals say, to notice "indicators of possible terrorist intent."
"In the SPOT program, we have a conversation with (passengers) and we ask them about their trip," said Maccario from his office in Boston. "When someone lies or tries to be deceptive, ... there are behavior cues that show it. ... A brief flash of fear."
TSA officials refuse to identify any specific behaviors for which the feds look, but they emphasize that the behaviors are constant across cultures. They also cite some results.
Since January 2006, behavior-detection officers have referred about 70,000 people for secondary screening.... Of those, about 600 to 700 were arrested on a variety of charges, including possession of drugs, weapons violations and outstanding warrants. ...

Lynette Blas-Bamba manages Sea-Tac's 12-officer behavior-detection team. Since the program started here in November 2006, more than 600 people have been referred for secondary inspections, she said. Of those, 11 were arrested.
Where to start with this latest bucket of bilge, this latest "Big Brother is watching" farce? I'll concede one point: So-called "microfacial expressions" do appear to exist and to that extent they do appear to be cross-cultural, related more to the hard-wiring of our genes than the software of our cultures. (Thereby striking a blow against strict behaviorism, but that's a different subject.)

From then on, it's trouble. First, Mark Frank, the very researcher who claimed to have
identified and isolated specific and sometimes involuntary movements of the 44 human facial muscles linked to fear, distrust, distress and other emotions related to deception,
did so by examining videotaped interviews, not by reading them on the fly in a public situation filled with distractions.

Second, the whole notion of such expressions comes out of publicly-available psychological research. Anyone sufficiently interested can find out the details. The business of refusing to name specific behaviors, as if this was some sort of big state secret, is so childishly idiotic as to make me think the leaders of the TSA spend their days imagining themselves in a James Bond movie or maybe an episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (Besides, if the reactions truly are involuntary, what difference could it make to describe them? Sounds like they want to mark it "secret" because - well, just because.)

Third, even to the extent microfacial expressions exist and are accurate indicators of internal states, accurately detecting them in a first, casual meeting with a stranger is almost impossible. It's very much like trying to do a polygraph test without even having a baseline.

Fourth and perhaps most importantly, again just like polygraphs (even ones with a baseline), they are notoriously unreliable. Just consider the results, precisely as reported:

- About 70,000 people have been referred for secondary screening nationwide, resulting in 600 to 700 arrests. So the "trained observers" were wrong in their suspicions at least 99% of the time.

- Sea-Tac fared only slightly better: more than 600 referrals, 11 arrests, a false hit rate of at least 98.2%.

And not one of the arrests was for anything related to terrorism. Not one. As a commenter at the P-I said, they probably could have just randomly pulled people out of line and done just as well if not better.

What's more, there is always the problem of what's known in psychology as "observer bias," that is,
"behavioral characteristics will be found where you look for them," [as] the American Civil Liberties of Massachusetts legal director John Reinstein told The Washington Post.
Put more bluntly, this program carries the distinct risk of giving racial profiling, even if it's unconscious racial profiling, a gloss of scientific impartiality. And it does not work.

This, as in so many other cases of official intrusion into personal space, is not about security. It's about the illusion of security, employed to keep us afraid while pushing us to passively accept being watched, observed, judged, by government officials as a regular feature of our daily lives. It is disturbing and depressing how many people are not only willing, they are even eager, to accept and even advocate further, deeper violations of those zones of privacy which not so long ago were supposed to be so precious.

Erich Fromm was on to something.

Footnote: Some people have some objections to intrusive surveillance, at least if it affects their pocketbook. The UK makes extensive use of "speed cameras," a combination of radar and camera designed to automatically detect and photograph any car exceeding the speed limit. In the West Midlands of England, a self-described "vigilante anti-speed camera group" called Motorists Against Detection is having none of that. They have quite literally been destroying the cameras, usually by burning them. Their exploits are discussed and documented at this site, which has a bunch of pictures of wrecked speed cameras: Go here and click on "Vandalised Gatsos."

Updated with a Footnote to the Footnote: I first heard of these sorts of cameras some years ago on a visit to Denver, which had recently installed them. I had two immediate responses: One, that it seemed unfair, even improper, since this makes it impossible to "confront your accuser" and there is an inherent belief in the machines' infallibility. Two, that someone would develop a spray that would react to the high-intensity flash by becoming opaque for a fraction of a second.

Right at the top of the Speedcam cite is a banner advertising precisely such a product. Free enterprise strikes again!

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