Unlike current technology which aims to detect devices such as guns or explosives, MALINTENT focuses on the person who could pose the threat Photo: NEWSCAST
US security officials could soon be screening potential terror suspects with a new type of technology capable of detecting “hostile intent”.
By Catherine Elsworth in Los Angeles
The Department of Homeland Security is testing a type of body scanner that seeks out invisible clues that a person might be harbouring criminal intent, such as raised body temperature, pulse and breathing rate.
The system, called MALINTENT, uses a raft of “non-invasive” sensors and imagers to detect such factors remotely – subjects are not hooked up to anything. It also evaluates a person’s facial expression to help to gauge whether they could be planning to commit an attack or crime.
The technology, developed by the Human Factors division of Homeland Security’s directorate for Science and Technology, would be used at border checkpoints, airports and special events that require security screening.
Unlike current technology which aims to detect devices such as guns or explosives, it focuses on the person who could pose the threat.
The technology, dubbed Future Attribute Screening Technology, or FAST, deploys a range of “innovative physiological and behavioural technologies” to pick up “indications of malintent or the intent or desire to cause harm”, according to the DHS.
Still in the development stage, it is designed to streamline screening of people at security checkpoints enabling large numbers to be vetted swiftly.
“It would take imaging and sensor technologies to observe physiological changes that might indicate intent to harm, such as skin temperature, pulse, respiration and gestures,” said Amy Kudwa, a DHS spokeswoman.
She added it would be capable of distinguishing between someone with a hostile intent and a plane passenger, for example, who was merely stressed about missing a connection.
The technology is currently installed in a mobile unit, or demonstration laboratory, that scans people with multiple sensors while they walk through it. Last week it was tested in Maryland using nearly about 140 volunteers, Ms Kudwa said.
Some of the volunteers were told to act suspiciously as they walked past the FAST sensors.
“We’re still very early on in this research, but it is looking very promising,” John Verrico, a DHS spokesman, told New Scientist. “We are running at about 78 percent accuracy on mal-intent detection, and 80 percent on deception.”
If the sensors pick up anything considered alarming, analysts can decide whether to subject a person to questioning.
In a Homeland Security video showing the system in action, targeted subjects are asked questions such as “are you attempting to smuggle an explosive device” or “are you from the local area?”
During this stage, the MALINTENT technology judges “thermal” and “physiological” response as well as “situation awareness” and reads a person’s minute facial muscle movements for evidence of emotional state, mood and intention.
While some aspects of the system have triggered allusions to mind reading and the crime-predicting technology of science fiction film Minority Report, the DHS denies this is what the system is about.
Ms Kudwa stressed nothing about a person’s identity would be stored and the system would be subject to a “rigorous privacy review” before it was ever brought online.
“We are still very much in a testing and validation of concept stage trying to determine if it’s even feasible,” Ms Kudwa said. Any public use of the technology was “many years off”, she added.