NASA plans to read terrorist's minds at airports
By Frank J. Murray
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Airport security screeners may soon try to read the minds of travelers
to identify terrorists.
Officials of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration have told
Northwest Airlines security specialists that the agency is developing
brain-monitoring devices in cooperation with a commercial firm, which it did
Space technology would be adapted to receive and analyze brain-wave and
heartbeat patterns, then feed that data into computerized programs "to detect
passengers who potentially might pose a threat," according to briefing
documents obtained by The Washington Times.
NASA wants to use "noninvasive neuro-electric sensors," imbedded in
gates, to collect tiny electric signals that all brains and hearts transmit.
Computers would apply statistical algorithms to correlate physiologic
patterns with computerized data on travel routines, criminal background and
credit information from "hundreds to thousands of data sources," NASA
The notion has raised privacy concerns. Mihir Kshirsagar of the
Electronic Privacy Information Center says such technology would only add to
airport-security chaos. "A lot of people's fear of flying would send those
meters off the chart. Are they going to pull all those people aside?"
The organization obtained documents July 31, the product of a Freedom of
Information Act lawsuit against the Transportation Security Administration,
and offered the documents to this newspaper.
Mr. Kshirsagar's organization is concerned about enhancements already
being added to the Computer-Aided Passenger Pre-Screening (CAPPS) system.
Data from sensing machines are intended to be added to that mix.
NASA aerospace research manager Herb Schlickenmaier told The Times the
test proposal to Northwest Airlines is one of four airline-security projects
the agency is developing. It's too soon to know whether any of it is working,
"There are baby steps for us to walk through before we can make any
pronouncements," says Mr. Schlickenmaier, the Washington official overseeing
scientists who briefed Northwest Airlines on the plan. He likened the
proposal to a super lie detector that would also measure pulse rate, body
temperature, eye-flicker rate and other biometric aspects sensed remotely.
Though adding mind reading to screening remains theoretical, Mr.
Schlickenmaier says, he confirms that NASA has a goal of measuring brain
waves and heartbeat rates of airline passengers as they pass screening
This has raised concerns that using noninvasive procedures is merely a
first step. Private researchers say reliable EEG brain waves are usually
measurable only by machines whose sensors touch the head, sometimes in a
"thinking cap" device. "To say I can take that cap off and put sensors in a
doorjamb, and as the passenger starts walking through [to allow me to say]
that they are a threat or not, is at this point a future application," Mr.
Schlickenmaier said in an interview.
"Can I build a sensor that can move off of the head and still detect the
EEG?" asks Mr. Schlickenmaier, who led NASA's development of airborne
wind-shear detectors 20 years ago. "If I can do that, and I don't know that
right now, can I package it and [then] say we can do this, or no we can't? We
are going to look at this question. Can this be done? Is the physics
Two physics professors familiar with brain-wave research, but not
associated with NASA, questioned how such testing could be feasible or
reliable for mass screening. "What they're saying they would do has not been
done, even wired in," says a national authority on neuro-electric sensing,
who asked not to be identified. He called NASA's goal "pretty far out."
Both professors also raised privacy concerns.
"Screening systems must address privacy and 'Big Brother' issues to the
extent possible," a NASA briefing paper, presented at a two-day meeting at
Northwest Airlines headquarters in St. Paul, Minn., acknowledges. Last year,
the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional police efforts to use noninvasive
"sense-enhancing technology" that is not in general public use in order to
collect data otherwise unobtainable without a warrant. However, the high
court consistently exempts airports and border posts from most Fourth
Amendment restrictions on searches.
"We're getting closer to reading minds than you might suppose," says
Robert Park, a physics professor at the University of Maryland and spokesman
for the American Physical Society. "It does make me uncomfortable. That's the
limit of privacy invasion. You can't go further than that."
"We're close to the point where they can tell to an extent what you're
thinking about by which part of the brain is activated, which is close to
reading your mind. It would be terribly complicated to try to build a device
that would read your mind as you walk by." The idea is plausible, he says,
At the Northwest Airlines session conducted Dec. 10-11, nine scientists
and managers from NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif.,
proposed a "pilot test" of the Aviation Security Reporting System.
NASA also requested that the airline turn over all of its computerized
passenger data for July, August and September 2001 to incorporate in NASA's
"passenger-screening testbed" that uses "threat-assessment software" to
analyze such data, biometric facial recognition and "neuro-electric sensing."
Northwest officials would not comment.
Published scientific reports show NASA researcher Alan Pope, at NASA
Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., produced a system to alert pilots or
astronauts who daydream or "zone out" for as few as five seconds.
The September 11 hijackers helped highlight one weakness of the CAPPS
system. They did dry runs that show whether a specific terrorist is likely to
be identified as a threat. Those pulled out for special checking could be
replaced by others who do not raise suspicions. The September 11 hijackers
cleared security under their own names, even though nine of them were pulled
aside for extra attention.