- - Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The federal government now has its own smartphone app. With this one, called “Priori,” the government can eavesdrop on private conversations to detect when a caller is piqued. It’s a modern take on the mood ring, the 1970s bauble that changed color based on the “mood” (actually, the temperature) of the wearer.

Armed with fistfuls of taxpayer cash, University of Michigan researchers developed a smartphone program that monitors voice patterns during telephone calls. If the app senses a dangerous pattern developing — a long-distance shouting match, perhaps — a warning is issued. In the development stages, a doctor or family member might be notified.

The study is funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and “facilitated” by the Prechter Bipolar Research Fund at the University of Michigan Depression Center. That’s pretty depressing news, even if for now the program is tested only on volunteers. So far, more than 1,100 consenting conversationalists have signed up for the trial, which pays those selected $250 for their troubles. University researchers want the app to tame Americans with “anger issues,” and perhaps help those with schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder and other ailments of the mind.

“We only ask that an individual use his or her smartphone as he or she normally would,” says Emily Mower Provost, a leader of the project. “We collect speech data from the smartphone and process the data in a privacy-preserving manner to learn the acoustic patterns associated with harmful mood variations.”

The research team says privacy is protected since only one side of the conversation is recorded. Nevertheless, it sounds like a scheme dreamed up — or at least inspired — by the National Security Agency, which only wants to help.

We’ve recently discovered that the federal government has been tapping the lines of every major telecommunications provider in the country under a general warrant approved by a secret court in a secret proceeding. There’s no way to know what sort of “pre-crime” analysis is applied to everyday conversations that the federales use to identify troublemakers.

The next federal snooping apps might determine whether someone having a heated exchange over the telephone is crazy. He may be barred from buying a gun. His name could be added to the FBI’s “no-fly list,” also maintained in secret, and denied the right to travel. If that sounds far-fetched, the Transportation Security Administration has already spent $900 million on a “behavior-detection” scheme in 450 airports that was supposed to identify high-risk passengers.

Government clerks and their supervisors are inordinately fond of fads, and the expensive program sent federal behavior-detection officers on the hunt for “stress, fear or deception” in travelers stuck in long lines. Over the course of two years, they identified 61,000 suspicious passengers, none of whom were terrorists. According to the Government Accountability Office, a handful, 365, were arrested for infractions such as having contraband or a fake ID. The program got it wrong 99.4 percent of the time.

That’s about the accuracy of the mood ring. Michigan researchers shouldn’t be disappointed if there’s no better performance by the detection performance program. There’s nothing to lose but somebody else’s money.

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