Airplane bombing plot spurs targeting technology

Privacy disputes swirl around uses of data mining to identify possible threats

Safety Measures: U.S. Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff greets passengers waiting for their flight at Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington, Aug. 11, 2006.

Jim Young

Technologies for pinpointing risky passengers drew renewed attention from Homeland Security Department officials following the recent terrorist airliner bombing plot.
But wrangling over privacy policy remained a pivotal factor in evaluation of the data-mining technology.

DHS secretary Michael Chertoff pledged that security officials would put added emphasis on 'targeting tools' at airports, a term generally understood to include applications that finger terrorists by sifting through vast databases about travelers.

Meanwhile, one major vendor of systems that DHS and other federal agencies use to detect threats said the aircraft bombing plot focused attention on software that analyzes security camera images to help security personnel identify risky travelers.

And airport security specialists said technology is evolving to help unmask terrorists by blending information from multiple sources. The merged data might include information about a traveler's nationality and itinerary, thermal-camera measurements that could signal a person's emotions, voice stress analysis and behavioral indications, such as clutching a parcel, that could hint at a plot, the sources said.

DHS has been working for years to upgrade its software to identify risky air travelers and bar them from planes, amid steady complaints about its unreliable systems. The most recent project, known as Secure Flight, began two years ago after its predecessor, the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System, failed over privacy and security issues.

Secure Flight has also faced criticism over privacy and security. All the department's air passenger prescreening systems have relied on combining information from the various federal terrorist watch lists with other types of data about individuals. The goal is to flag risky passengers using data-mining algorithms to find hidden patterns pointing to terrorism threats.

But such data-mining methods, defined broadly, still irk privacy advocates.

'I think it is unfortunate that the daily headlines dictate so much of the debate over counterterrorism measures,' said privacy advocate Jim Dempsey, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington. 'The fact is that data mining merits further study, but it remains an unproven technology and holds dangers from a privacy and due-process standpoint.'

Dempsey charged that data-mining advocates have exaggerated the technology's effectiveness. He noted that the British investigation of the most recent airliner bomb plot began with an informant's tip and gained strength from wiretaps.

'I have not seen evidence of what data mining can do in the absence of some reason to believe that an individual is involved in terrorist activity,' Dempsey said.

Meanwhile, James Carafano, senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said ill-founded privacy concerns had aborted useful data-mining work such as the Pentagon's Total Information Awareness project that could promote both security and privacy.

'I think the chilling effect of the backlash to TIA has prevented people from exploring effective data-mining technologies,' Carafano said.

In addition to TIA's failure, TSA has never been able to get its Secure Flight program off the ground.

'TSA never was able to define its goals for Secure Flight,' Dempsey said. 'Without defined goals, you can't achieve anything.'

But Carafano disagreed with Dempsey's reasoning. He said Secure Flight's tailspin resulted from misguided concerns about privacy.

'Secure Flight is moribund,' Carafano said. 'It keeps running into privacy roadblocks.'

TSA declined to provide detailed information on how the Secure Flight project is developing.

Chertoff cited plans for beefing up targeting technologies in the initial press conference about the airliner bombing plot: 'The Immigration and Customs Enforcement will be in- creasing enforcement efforts in the international arrival areas, including the use of advanced targeting tools, special response teams including baggage and aircraft search teams, baggage X-ray equipment, specially trained K-9 units and explosive detection technology,' Chertoff said.

Previously announced research projects include systems that can detect individuals' 'suspicious behavior.'

Law enforcement technology officials contend that these systems do not amount to legally or ethically barred 'profiling,' such as selecting persons for search on the grounds of their race or apparent religious affiliation.

Law enforcement and counterterrorism officials have studied methods for pinpointing known terrorists in a crowd such as 'gait analysis,' which distinguishes people by the way they walk. The field includes a wide range of biometric identifiers that can serve either to match individuals in a crowd to known threats or to identify previously unknown terrorists from a distance. One senior official cited body odor as one of the more recent biometric identifiers.

Ian Ehrenberg, vice president and general manager of the Video Surveillance Division of Nice Systems Inc. of Rananna, Israel, said his company's software for 'exception detection,' is getting a closer look from federal and airport officials.

Ehrenberg said exception detection software works by processing security camera images to filter out untoward elements, such as unattended luggage, that could signal a security problem.

The software also can point out such deviant behavior as turnstile-jumping that could warrant further investigation by security personnel, he said.

Suspect behavior

Airports and train stations present special problems for systems designed to flag suspect behavior. 'If you can help me define normal behavior [in an airport], you would be a very useful resource,' Ehrenberg said, alluding to the widely varying activities and emotions shown by people passing through transportation hubs.

'It is not going to become a Columbo,' Ehrenberg said of the security software.
But by flagging suspicious events, the software can increase the efficiency of security teams and their technology.

At the same time, the exception detection software can improve privacy by fending off improper use of video cameras by bored or prurient security workers, he said. 'Military tests have proven time and time again that after 30 minutes, 95 percent of effectiveness [of video cameras monitored by workers] goes away.'

As for the fallout from the most recent airliner bombing plot, 'We got quite a few calls, not just from airports but from [operators of] many transportation depots and portals,' Ehrenberg said.

He added that his company provides a lot of video surveillance and exception detection technology to the Pentagon, DHS and other federal agencies.

'We are on our third generation of this technology,' Ehrenberg said.

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