Archive for October, 2006

Airline security theatre now starring airline passengers in live action

October 6th, 2006

I keep waiting for someone responsible for airline security to sober up, and realize how ridiculous, costly, invasive, and (maybe most importantly) unhelpful for security are all the new and increasing limitations and checks.

But that doesn’t seem to happen.

If anything, things just go worse, with more paranoia, and more pointless regulations being made. All in the name of security, almost all without any real security benefit, and almost all with high costs in terms of time, money, hassles, and privacy.

And now they’re working on a system that would record everything passengers say and do during a flight.

Researchers in Britain and Europe are looking at technology that would see a comprehensive network of microphones and cameras installed throughout the aircraft, including the lavatory, which would be linked to a computer.

Sounds fine for one of those silly reality shows.

But very far from being fine for regular flights. Microphones and cameras everywhere on a plane. Including the toilets.

This computer would be “trained” to pick up suspicious behaviour, said Catherine Neary, of Bae Systems, one of the British participants in a £24 million European Union project

Computers cannot pick up suspicious behaviour. It will be quite some time, many many years, until they will be able to come even close.

Heck, it’s hard enough to train real live people to pick up suspicious behaviour. They think very many things are very suspicious, all the time. And that involves detecting a lot of tiny cues, and requires instincts and experience. A computer cannot do that.

Computers will just be able to follow very crude rules. Meaning that they will miss actual suspicious behaviours, but will have lots and lots of innocent people tagged as acting suspiciously.

Actually, what the heck is suspicious for an airline passenger? And how do you separate the terrorist kind of suspicious from other kinds of suspicious?

Eventually, the computer would be programmed to understand a variety of languages.

Oh, yes, any day now. Because right now computers would be hard pressed to understand even one language. At most you can pre-define a limited set of key words, and have the computer pick up people who say them. And even that will fail on some accents, pitches, and taking speeds.

Not to mention, what words would these be? Will they train the computer to catch whole sentences, like “Let’s blow up the plane now”? Because obviously a terrorist who wants to blow up a plane is going to announce that before doing so, right? And other passengers around will never pick up on that, so it’s good that there will be a super sensitive microphone to do so (yes, I’m being sarcastic).

“Passengers are not being snooped on by humans, but by machines which will process the data, which would not be stored after the flight unless there is an incident,” she said.

But the machines cannot process the data properly, so the next obvious step is to have humans look in at anything the computer will flag as suspicious. And that will have to be almost everything, because it’s better that a human will snoop on a few extra events, instead of letting a terrorist go on undetected, right?

And, well, only keeping the data if there’s an incident? What does that mean, incident? If they mean unless the plane explodes, well, too late to do anything useful with that, no?

Or do they mean unless an incident happens which isn’t as critical? Because these happen these days for right about anything. Creating an “incident” is way too easy.

Heck, there are incidents when people accidentally drop their music players down the toilet. Would that justify a human going through an audio and video records of what everyone did on the plane, including inside the toilet?

It’s an incident when someone prays while on an airplane. Would that justify a human going through an audio and video records of what everyone did and said while on the plane?

It’s an incident when someone wants to drink water from a bottle. Very suspicious, bottles, and failing them around willy-nilly can alarm other passengers, so maybe it can even escalate to a truly serious incident.

Lots and lots of small and minor things can become an incident. Will all of these justify someone watching and listening to tapes from the flight? Why am I not feeling reassured?

“There are likely to be cameras and microphones in the toilet, because that is where terrorists go to assemble bombs.”

Yes, they always do that, don’t they, these terrorists? They go on a plane, then enter the toilet to assemble bombs. Quite an regular habit with them.

The camera could also be trained to detect seemingly harmless items being left in aircraft lavatories that could later be assembled to make a lethal device.

These days small containers with liquids, including… erm… toiletries, are considered dangerous. Liquid binary bombs, and all that. Which pretty much covers anything that can be left in a toilet. Anything that can be spilled in a toilet.

And the people running the system can be fully trusted not to do things like, say, decide to keep personal copies of the films of people (in the toilet, or otherwise) just because the ones filmed may be physically attractive acting somewhat suspicious, right? Nobody would ever do that.

On the bright side, though, people joining the mile high club may now easily obtain photographed proof to show all the doubters.

This is invasive madness. All of it.

Though it does give a new multi-layered meaning to the term security theatre.