Airports make me feel rushed and anxious and crabby. I’m always in a better mood on return flights, when I know I’ll be home again soon, but I’m still not a happy traveler, and that’s probably obvious to everyone around me. I’ll have to improve my attitude, though, if a proposed new security system called FAST becomes reality, or I’ll be in big trouble.
I’m okay with current airport security, although it’s a bloody nuisance. Where my right knee once was, I have a big chunk of surgical steel and space age plastic, and I’ve accepted that I will always be pulled aside for a full-body pat-down. The female security inspectors who do this are briskly impersonal, yet courteous and considerate, and I appreciate their professionalism. The baggage scans and searches – all necessary.
But FAST worries me.
The acronym stands for Future Attribute Screening Technique. Think about that for a minute. Especially the word Future. FAST is designed to identify people who haven’t actually done anything but might be on the verge of wreaking havoc. It works not by detecting weapons but by measuring changes in passengers’ heart and breathing rates, skin temperature, eye and body movements. If I ever walk through a FAST sensor array after a tardy shuttle driver has nearly made me miss a flight, I’m a goner.
FAST is a $20 million dollar federal project currently being tested by the Department of Homeland Security. We already have human evil intentions detectors in our airports: 3,000 DHS officers spend their work hours walking around terminals watching passengers’ behavior, searching for suspicious movements and facial expressions. This program is called SPOT – Screening of Passengers by Observational Techniques. FAST is designed to pick up changes that can’t be seen by the naked eye.
Clinical psychologist Daniel Martin developed the theory behind FAST: a person who is about to commit a crime will exhibit certain physiological changes, and the intensity of those changes will vary with the seriousness of the planned crime. (Somebody who’s planning to blow up a plane full of people will sweat more, breathe harder, etc., than somebody who’s trying to smuggle marijuana through security.) In studies of more than 2,000 subjects, FAST had a 78% success rate at detecting those who had been instructed to do something “bad” at mock events. After receiving their instructions, the subjects passed through sensors capable of registering physical reactions from as far away as 20 feet.
The problem with this kind of trial study, of course, is that a test subject who has been instructed to go into a room and steal some small item is hardly the same as a terrorist who’s planning to commandeer an airliner and crash it into a skyscraper. No accurate way exists to test the technology. If it’s approved, real passengers in real airports will ultimately be the test subjects. Mistakes will be made. Harried travelers will find themselves in a lot of trouble because they were frowning and their hearts were racing, while coolly determined terrorists will sail through without arousing any suspicion.
Many experts in various scientific and technological fields are questioning the value of FAST. Data from test studies have been shown to some scientists but have not been released to and reviewed by the general scientific community. It won’t come to an airport near you anytime soon; years of further development and testing lie ahead. But DHS has invested so much money and time in it already that we can probably count on seeing some version of it in airports eventually.
When that day arrives, I might decide I’d prefer to take the train. What do you think?
If you want to read more about FAST, see the December issue of Discover magazine.