An internal U.S. Department of Homeland Security document indicates that a controversial program designed to predict whether a person will commit a crime is already being tested on some members of the public voluntarily, CNET has learned.
If this sounds a bit like the Tom Cruise movie called "Minority Report," or the CBS drama "Person of Interest," it is. But where "Minority Report" author Philip K. Dick enlisted psychics to predict crimes, DHS is betting on algorithms: it's building a "prototype screening facility" that it hopes will use factors such as ethnicity, gender, breathing, and heart rate to "detect cues indicative of mal-intent."
"If it were deployed against the public, it would be very problematic," says Ginger McCall, open government counsel at EPIC, a nonprofit group in Washington, D.C.
Elsewhere in the document, FAST program manager Robert Middleton Jr. refers to a "limited" initial trial using DHS employees as test subjects. Middleton says that FAST "sensors will non-intrusively collect video images, audio recordings, and psychophysiological measurements from the employees," with a subgroup of employees singled out, with their permission, for more rigorous evaluation.
FAST is designed to track and monitor, among other inputs, body movements, voice pitch changes, prosody changes (alterations in the rhythm and intonation of speech), eye movements, body heat changes, and breathing patterns. Occupation and age are also considered. A government source told CNET that blink rate and pupil variation are measured too.
Although DHS has publicly suggested that FAST could be used at airport checkpoints--the Transportation Security Administration is part of the department, after all--the government appears to have grander ambitions. One internal DHS document (PDF) also obtained by EPIC through the Freedom of Information Act says a mobile version of FAST "could be used at security checkpoints such as border crossings or at large public events such as sporting events or conventions."
DHS is being unusually secretive about FAST. A February 2010 contract (PDF) with Cambridge, Mass.-based Draper Laboratory to build elements of the "pre-crime" system has every dollar figure blacked out (a fleeting reference to an "infrared camera" remained).
Relying on ambiguous biological factors to predict mal-intent is worrisome, says McCall. "Especially if they're going to be rolling this out at the airport. I don't know about you, but going to an airport gives me a minor panic attack, wondering if I'm going to get groped by a TSA officer."
Update 2:12 p.m. PT: A Homeland Security spokesman has just provided this additional statement to CNET: "The FAST program is entirely voluntary and does not store any personally-identifiable information (PII) from participants once the experiment is completed.