New security system uses Wii technology and worries GOP

Several Republican lawmakers are worried about the privacy issues of a screening technology being developed by the government that combines a video game balancing device with thermal, ocular, respiratory, and cardiac monitors.

The technology is being developed by the Homeland Security department (DHS) and if approved could be used to spot potentially threatening people at airports, sports games, and border crossing areas.

The $20 million trial program called Future Attribute Screening Technology (FAST) combines an eye-tracking device that gauges abnormal pupil sizes; a laser radar that reads the person’s heart and respiration rate; and a thermal camera that can pick up changes in skin’s temperature, all while the person stands on a Nintendo Wii Fit balance board.

The data collected during such a screening is fed into an algorithm, which creates an analysis for security personnel to examine. The Wii Fit balance board first appealed to the scientists developing the technology because it is an off-the-shelf product that is easily adaptable to a security setting.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) is skeptical of the FAST program, saying that he has “real concerns” that it could violate a person’s privacy more than it could be a boon to the threat detection community.

“It’s crazy what you have to do to get on an airplane,” he said in an interview. “I’m on an airplane every three or four days. I want the airplane to be as secure as possible, but oh my goodness, you get treated like a criminal.”

But DHS said it has done everything to try to ensure that personal privacy rights are respected, and that the FAST technology is gender and ethnicity neutral in analyzing the physiological indicators.

“As we do in all of our research and development, we have been proceeding from the earliest stages with privacy and civil liberties front of mind,” said Matt Chandler, a spokesperson for DHS, in an e-mail. “Each person has their own baseline of physiological traits, and the goal is to detect changes in these traits as the individual moves through the security process.

“No information is stored. No identifying data is collected. It works just as secondary security screening works now – once the person is cleared, the information is gone.”

The balance board used in the system is being tested to see if it can detect tiny movements not visible to the human eye, Chandler said. When those movements are paired with other physiological indicators, they could suggest mal-intent, he said.

“No one sign will tell us if someone is planning to do harm. We’re trying to determine if any combination of signals can separate out potential threats. It will always be a security officer’s decision if a person warrants additional screening. The idea is to provide those decision-makers with additional information they can use.”

Chaffetz has sponsored a measure that would prohibit the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) from using Whole Body-Imaging (WBI) machines for primary screening at airports. The amendment would also require the TSA to give passengers the option of a pat-down search in lieu of going through a WBI machine.

The freshman lawmaker said he’s focused on getting support from the upper chamber on his WBI screening device and then he’ll take up his concerns with the FAST program, which is still several years away from being implemented, if it’s approved.

“I’ve got my eyes on it,” he said of the FAST program. “I’m going to dive into it a little deeper. I’m trying to shore up the Senate side of my Whole Body Imaging bill and I figure if I can get a nice coalition of senators who understand the privacy issues and we can get this bill all the way across the finish line, then we’ll go back and try for this next.”

Rep Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), who co-sponsored Chaffetz’s amendment prohibiting WBI screening, said while he’s not as familiar with the FAST program, he is also very concerned that it could be an invasion of personal privacy.

“I have faith in metal detectors,” he said in an interview. “Simple, little metal detectors that we’ve had for 40 years. And there are devices that detect chemicals, which are good. But after that I don’t know what else you need. I feel very secure for the American people with those. A metal detector should be about 90 percent of airport security.”