Thought Police: Coming to a Computer Near You?

Biometric information gathering spurs privacy concerns

Imagine a computer security device that won't let you access a computer or network unless your thoughts are preapproved by a policing scanner. You walk up to a terminal, and a device instantly scans your brain waves and heart rate and gathers biometric identification data from your body. The scanner then compares the biometrics data and your vital statistics to a variety of databases, including credit bureaus, criminal records, travel habits, and hundreds (if not thousands) of other sensitive databases. If you're deemed not to be a risk, you're allowed access to the computer or network. Sound far-fetched? Think again (no pun intended).

According to a "The Washington Times" report, such technology is under development right now, all in the name of antiterrorism. The report states that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is developing the technology with cooperation from an unnamed commercial firm for use at airports to help identify potential terrorists. Given the fact that computers and networks are vital to everyday affairs, it hardly stretches the imagination to think that such technology could become commonplace in the computer industry sometime in the future.

According to "The Washington Times" report, on July 31, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) obtained documents from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for a lawsuit. The documents revealed a plan to implement such technology to screen passengers at airports. NASA told security specialists at Northwest Airlines, where the technology might be tested, about the brain-monitoring technology.

NASA Aerospace Research Manager Herb Schlickenmaier likened the technology to "a super lie detector that would also measure pulse rate, body temperature, eye-flicker rate and other biometric aspects sensed remotely." Today, a ball cap-type sensor must touch someone's head to read brainwaves. And, in fact, Schlickenmaier noted, "To say I can take that cap off and put sensors in a doorjamb, and as the passenger starts walking through \[say that the passenger is\] a threat or not, is at this point a future application."

Physics professors familiar with brainwave research have raised privacy concerns about that research. Nevertheless, if NASA can produce such a device and the public accepts such technology as part of the general screening process for airport access, then it's reasonable to think that such technology might also make its way into the computer security industry (and other industries soon thereafter). After all, computer networks are mission-critical elements of a nation's infrastructure, and it's rather obvious that computer intruders pose a serious threat to such infrastructures.

For information about such threats, be sure to read our news story, "Intruder Stole New Shuttle Design Plans from NASA," listed in the SECURITY ROUNDUP section of this UPDATE (see the URL below). And read "The Washington Times" report for a revealing glimpse of a potential future scenario.

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