In The Atlantic, Alexander Furnas debunks the DHS's proposal for a "precrime" screening system that will attempt to predict which passengers are likely to commit crimes, and single those people out for additional screening. FAST (Future Attribute Screening Technology) "will remotely monitor physiological and behavioral cues, like elevated heart rate, eye movement, body temperature, facial patterns, and body language, and analyze these cues algorithmically for statistical aberrance in an attempt to identify people with nefarious intentions." They'll build the biometric "bad intentions" profile by asking experimental subjects to carry out bad deeds and monitoring their vital signs. It's a mess, scientifically, and it will falsely accuse millions of innocent people of planning terrorist attacks.

First, predictive software of this kind is undermined by a simple statistical problem known as the false-positive paradox. Any system designed to spot terrorists before they commit an act of terrorism is, necessarily, looking for a needle in a haystack. As the adage would suggest, it turns out that this is an incredibly difficult thing to do. Here is why: let's assume for a moment that 1 in 1,000,000 people is a terrorist about to commit a crime. Terrorists are actually probably much much more rare, or we would have a whole lot more acts of terrorism, given the daily throughput of the global transportation system. Now lets imagine the FAST algorithm correctly classifies 99.99 percent of observations -- an incredibly high rate of accuracy for any big data-based predictive model. Even with this unbelievable level of accuracy, the system would still falsely accuse 99 people of being terrorists for every one terrorist it finds. Given that none of these people would have actually committed a terrorist act yet distinguishing the innocent false positives from the guilty might be a non-trivial, and invasive task.

Of course FAST has nowhere near a 99.99 percent accuracy rate. I imagine much of the work being done here is classified, but a writeup in Nature reported that the first round of field tests had a 70 percent accuracy rate. From the available material it is difficult to determine exactly what this number means. There are a couple of ways to interpret this, since both the write-up and the DHS documentation (all pdfs) are unclear. This might mean that the current iteration of FAST correctly classifies 70 percent of people it observes -- which would produce false positives at an abysmal rate, given the rarity of terrorists in the population. The other way of interpreting this reported result is that FAST will call a terrorist a terrorist 70 percent of the time. This second option tells us nothing about the rate of false positives, but it would likely be quite high. In either case, it is likely that the false-positive paradox would be in full force for FAST, ensuring that any real terrorists identified are lost in a sea of falsely accused innocents.

Homeland Security's 'Pre-Crime' Screening Will Never Work

(Image: Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from double-m2's photostream)