- The Washington Times - Friday, March 30, 2007

Today: Technology we really, truly don’t need.

In the Daily Mail I see that British and European engineers are working on an airline seat that will watch you. And listen to you. Yes, the idea is to catch terrorists.

I thought it was a joke, but no. Tiny cameras in the seat back in front of you will keep watch. They will be connected to a computer, whose software will discern signs that you might be nervous. For example, twitching, licking lips, blinking frequently, or rapid eye movements can indicate nervousness, and therefore terrorist tendencies.

Further, microphones will listen to you. Really.

Reported the Daily Mail: “A separate microphone will hear and record even whispered remarks. Islamic suicide bombers are known to whisper texts from the Koran in the moments before they explode bombs.”

This is a case of technology in the service of absurdity. To begin, how many people are nervous on aircraft anyway? Being watched constantly would make a lot of us more nervous.

Apart from that, notice the near-perfect impracticality of the idea. A terrorist with a bomb can explode it 30 seconds after takeoff while everyone is strapped in.

Will the computer have special mumbled-Koran-detection software? If the mumbling occurs moments before the boom, what is anyone on the aircraft going to do about it? What is the point of “recording whispered remarks? Who is going to listen? When? After the explosion?

Further, facial tics, nervous mannerisms, and symptoms of mild obsessive-compulsive behavior, such as blowing on fingers, throat-clearing, and repeatedly touching the face, are relatively common. Terrorists, having read about the system, will studiously avoid such behavior. Normal people won’t.

On any flight, the software might flag, what, 20 cases? What does the crew do when the guy in seat 35-A sets off the twitch alert? Perhaps the flight attendants could search him while the air marshal held him at gunpoint. Of every thousand people flagged, at least 999 would not be terrorists. The result of course would be that the system would simply be ignored.

Airlines don’t want to drive away customers, which would be an effect.

Sure, you could raise the detection threshold to reduce the number of false alarms, but you would then be ignoring a lot of uneasy people who might be terrorists.

The whole idea smacks of a common form of prostitution of technology. Tech industries want to make money.

There are big profits to be had in making X-ray baggage scanners and explosives sniffers. These things are not cheap, and there are lots of airline gates.

Federal money pours into these programs. The next step is to market improved scanners, and then body scanners — the ones that can see you naked.

Then, in the anti-terror market, companies begin thinking up new ways to hop onto the gravy train. Thus the interest in retina scans as means of identification, and such ideas (very much being thought about) of analyzing brain waves for signs of anxiety.

Thus, the idea of airline seats that watch you. How many airline seats are there in the world? It comes to a lot of hardware, computers included, wiring, and installation and maintenance contracts.

This is normal tech-business behavior. Sell everybody a computer and then, three years later, a faster computer. The difference is that better computers are actually better. The terror-industrial complex by contrast rewards ever more intrusive surveillance, much of it pointless. And it is now an established, massive cash spigot.

Maybe someone needs to design a common-sense filter.

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