LIE DETECTION….The Wall Street Journal writes today about an Israeli-designed system called Cogito that’s intended to catch terrorists in airports:

Here is the Cogito concept: A passenger enters the booth, swipes his passport and responds in his choice of language to 15 to 20 questions generated by factors such as the location, and personal attributes like nationality, gender and age. The process takes as much as five minutes, after which the passenger is either cleared or interviewed further by a security officer.

At the heart of the system is proprietary software that draws on Israel’s extensive field experience with suicide bombers and security-related interrogations. The system aims to test the responses to words, in many languages, that trigger psycho-physiological responses among people with terrorist intent.

If you think this sounds like it wouldn’t work very well, you’d be right. Even in a test environment, the machine missed 15% of “terrorists” and incorrectly flagged 8% of innocent travelers. Cogito’s goal is to get that to 10% and 4%, which is still far too high to be of very much value.

But that doesn’t mean the idea is useless. As USA Today reported a couple of years ago, “The Defense Department’s Polygraph Institute at Fort Jackson, S.C., is financing at least 20 projects aimed at finding a better lie detector. Another Pentagon office, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is exploring magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and other technologies.” You can read more here about the fMRI research, which is based on recent findings that different areas of the brain are active when a person tells the truth as opposed to when they lie.

This technology isn’t ready for prime time yet, not least because sticking people inside an MRI machine at airports isn’t exactly a feasible concept. But I wouldn’t be surprised if a better and more reliable version of this technology were available within five to ten years. If, say, it could replicate Cogito’s planned accuracy, and the two were combined, the resulting device might have a 99% chance of catching terrorists and only a .1% rate of false positives. That would be genuinely useful.

Needless to say, success on this front could produce all sorts of grim 1984-ish scenarios as well. But I’ll bet that it’s coming, like it or not, and as a tool against terrorism it would be revolutionary. Elimination of traditional airport screening would be only the most trivial of its uses. I’ll bet you’re all keen with anticipation, aren’t you?

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