- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 18, 2003

In New Scientist, the British journal of science and technology, I discover that the British are developing a terrorist-detecting airline seat. Yes. It will monitor behavior to see whether you might be a hijacker.

“Intelligent airline seats could automatically alert busy cabin crew to nervous, shifty passengers, who might be terrorists or air-ragers,” says the magazine.

The alert seat is being designed at Qinetiq, a firm working under contract for the Ministry of Defense. It will use an array of pressure-sensors built into the seat to monitor the passenger’s movement. A computer will alert the airplane’s crew to anyone who seems agitated. In the future, says Qinetiq, further sensors may monitor such things as the passenger’s body temperature and the moistness of his skin to help the computer decide whether he is dangerous.

Other benefits are that the seat could flash a light to warn flight attendants that the passenger had been in one position too long, which might lead to deep-vein thrombosis.

When I began writing about technology, the technology interested me. Now, often, it’s the underlying psychiatry. Airline seats that monitor our mental states? Have we quietly gone nuts?

A Qinetiq slogan: “The future? We are already working on it.” Do you suppose we could get them to stop?

Another comforting idea being developed to help us behave is the “Distributed Digital Video Array.” These are interlinked cameras that recognize people of interest and track their movements. The Department of Defense has given a contract to the Computer Vision and Robotics Research Laboratory at the University of California at San Diego to develop them.

The idea is that interlinked cameras, connected to computers, would recognize suspicious activity, like a car stopping by the fence surrounding a sensitive installation. The computer would then alert a human operator.

One sees where this is heading, fast. A geeky friend of mine who works in related fields told me, “They want to be able to recognize you when you get off the plane and track you automatically wherever you go. They’ll do it. It’s doable. And you’ll never know it.”

Now, who “they” are is debatable and what they want is speculation. But the capacity for smart, automated surveillance is there. And it will improve fast.

There is big money in anti-terrorism now, including federal grants for research. Further, the technology for the near-total elimination of privacy happens to be useful for a wide variety of profitable and legitimate tasks.

Computerized recognition of faces exists. It works. How well it works is debatable. Companies like Viisage have been selling face-recognition systems for some time.

Computers can already visually track moving objects. Years back, as a police reporter, I saw a helicopter-borne video camera that could lock on to, say, a particular white car among many others on a freeway below the helicopter.

The idea was that a human watcher would soon lose a car among many similar cars. The computer didn’t. This is proven technology.

Computers can read license plates, given of course a reasonable angle and lighting. This is not new. It’s just optical character recognition.

Linking cameras and their associated computers is, of course, perfectly easy.

Would networking all of this be of real use in catching terrorists? You’d think so. A terrorist scouts a petroleum farm in hopes of blowing it up, the cameras notice, one of them along the road gets his license number and passes it to other unobtrusive cameras at all the exits, a central computer notifies the FBI, and he gets tailed. Says me, a lot of this stuff will work. I’m just not sure I want it to.

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