The Doghouse: Onboard Threat Detection System

It’s almost too absurd to even write about seriously—this plan to spot terrorists in airplane seats:

Cameras fitted to seat-backs will record every twitch, blink, facial expression or suspicious movement before sending the data to onboard software which will check it against individual passenger profiles.


They say that rapid eye movements, blinking excessively, licking lips or ways of stroking hair or ears are classic symptoms of somebody trying to conceal something.

A separate microphone will hear and record even whispered remarks. Islamic suicide bombers are known to whisper texts from the Koran in the moments before they explode bombs.

The software being developed by the scientists will be so sophisticated that it will be able to take account of nervous flyers or people with a natural twitch, helping to ensure there are no false alarms.

The only thing I can think of is that some company press release got turned into real news without a whole lot of thinking.

Posted on February 16, 2007 at 6:55 AM42 Comments


anna February 16, 2007 7:14 AM

the joys of traveling when you are tired, non-white, or even just pissed off about the security theater…
or then they will create a database about how much fidgeting i can do before my fidgeting, playing with my hair, mumbling insults in Sicilian or some other non-default language, rolling eyes etc will set on the alarm.
… and suddenly 10 million ADD people will end up on the no-fly list.

mdf February 16, 2007 7:21 AM

“Islamic suicide bombers are known to whisper texts from the Koran in the moments before they explode bombs.”

This just in!!!

Rooters (Washington). Yesterday’s terrorist attack at Reagan International was promptly detected, to the intense relief of security professionals everywhere.

“13.2 seconds prior to the detonation of their bombs, our in-plane sensors picked up the quiet muttering of six verses from the Koran in seat 19B”, said a source from the TSA that wishes to remain anonymous. “A stellar security success! An achievement this agency can be proud of!”, this source continued.

When the reporter initially assigned to this story subsequently asked asked of what possible use warning a “few moments” prior to bombs going off is, the phone call was terminated and six hours later, government officials arrested him. His whereabouts are currently unknown, but evidence suggests he is now on a plane to Cuba.

Twitchy February 16, 2007 7:26 AM

Pretty far out stuff here. The Mail isn’t really a good source for serious news. Normally, I would be reluctant to use it as a story source.

“A separate microphone will hear and record even whispered remarks. Islamic suicide bombers are known to whisper texts from the Koran in the moments before they explode bombs.”

Of course there would be no time to react so an automatic gun that shoots the passenger in the head should also be fitted.

“Blink rates come from lie-detection research and suggest the stress level is higher than normal.”

And nobody gets nervous about flying. Right?

Andy February 16, 2007 7:36 AM

I’m an atheist, and on a 747 in bad weather over Chicago, I was ready to whisper prayers. Presumably I’d be okay, though – I’m sure the microphone would be able to hear what language I was using, and what I was saying, over the noise of engines and other passengers.

Can’t we just arrest everyone who looks a bit middle-eastern and boards a plane on suspicion of being Muslim? ;o)

Oh well, hopefully there’ll be some spin off technology that’s worth something at the end of this when the project fails.

No pressure or anything eh? February 16, 2007 7:54 AM

You’re being watched
You’re being watched
You’re being watched
You’re being watched


You’re being watched
You’re being watched
You’re being watched


You’re being watched…

Lather, rinse, repeat…

You’re being watched…

Bob February 16, 2007 8:09 AM

Uhh, just wait until some Muslim run airline gets these onboard. Some poor Jew or Christian is going to get on the plane and, during a turbulent portion of the flight, quietly whisper a prayer to God.

Immediately a warning sign will light, “Infidel on board,” and the disguised Air Suicide Marshall will leap into action and press his IED’s detonate button, setting off a chain reaction that races through the other passengers’ courtesy seatside suicide packs.

Soon thereafter the International Muslim Press will report on the terror attack that sent 175 martyrs to their glorious deaths.

paul February 16, 2007 8:17 AM

John Lettice has it in one.

There’s probably some use somewhere in software that can read anxiety levels in body language (for example, in telling managers at a large event when their crowd-control techniques aren’t working and they’d better open up some alternate exits before someone gets trampled) but this is just stupid.

Or perhaps not so stupid. It was axiomatic back in the heady days of the War on Cancer that good research proposal in other areas could gain funding by adding a few paragraphs to the grant application about possible results for cancer cells. So maybe this is just corporate welfare, or maybe it’s a way of getting access to funds that would never be available to a worthwhile project that stated its goals honestly.

David Harper February 16, 2007 8:26 AM

The news items comes from the Daily Mail, which is notorious in Britain for running paranoid scare stories based upon little or no factual information.

The typical Daily Mail headline is either a protest about some (imaginary) new European Union regulation that will force plucky British cucumber farmers to grow vegetables that are exactly 25 centimetres long and perfectly straight, or a rant about how the recent enlargement of the European Union will lead to an invasion by swarthy, goggle-eyed Eastern Europeans intent on taking our jobs, stealing our homes and ravishing our women.

It’s not a serious or reliable source of information.

Satan luvvs Repugs February 16, 2007 8:39 AM

“They say that rapid eye movements, blinking excessively, licking lips or ways of stroking hair or ears are classic symptoms of somebody trying to conceal something.”

Why am I getting flashbacks of watching the 2000 presidential debates, were GWB was blinking furiously?

Harald February 16, 2007 8:45 AM

“The only thing I can think of is that some company press release got turned into real news without a whole lot of thinking.”

Isn’t a ridiculously large portion of a modern newspaper made up of only-slightly regurgitated press releases?

avery February 16, 2007 9:01 AM

If you think that’s bad Harald, consider how many times a perfectly innocent scientist is forced to come up with a practical aplication of his very basic research into how the universe works. I’m amazed how long they were able to go fishing for wild speculations before anybody caught on and started mailing them in.

Personally, I’d be impressed if they could come up with a computer system that could tell, “Hey, that guy is attacking that other guy with an axe!” much less be smart enough to get a hinky feeling about, well, anything.

bob February 16, 2007 9:04 AM

I am hoping this is a clever disinformation attack intended to make terrorists worry about something that can never happen, filling up their “todo” lists with crap and (hopefully) causing them to slip up on something meaningful which gives them away.

Michael Richardson February 16, 2007 9:39 AM

“They say that rapid eye movements, blinking excessively, licking lips or ways of stroking hair or ears are classic symptoms of somebody trying to conceal something.”

Yeah, like they got the hots for the flight attendant, the guy in the next seat, or they are really hungry and can’t wait for the meal,
or they need to use the washroom.

Rusty February 16, 2007 9:55 AM

@smear the lens folks…

I’ve got a tenner that says if this hits it will be accompanied by a law prohibiting ‘interfering with such-and-such’

He’s put his gum on the seat-back! Quick, divert to somewhere 3 hours out of the way!

Completely ludicrous, and I fully expect to see it on US aircraft first. “Land of the free” indeed!

Kevin Way February 16, 2007 10:39 AM

I would personally pay to put these devices in first and business class seats.

Not because I think they’d secure anything, but because the audio recordings would offer all sorts of insider information that could be used to clean up on the stock market.

Andrew February 16, 2007 11:20 AM

Even if the software could be made to work ( see comments about ADD, nervous flyers, response timing above) there are still many practical issues: misuse by the authorities, the data falling into the wrong hands*, interception of the data between the camera and the recorder (it’ll HAVE to be wireless, as no airline is going to pay for the gas for all the extra wire, and since every airline has it’s own seating configuration), loss of business to non-compliant carriers, cost etc, etc. Also, if the we can’t use a passenger security body scanner because it’s too revealing (even though it might really improve security) , we certainly aren’t going to be able to get this.

(Destroyed at the end of the flight my ass. I bet that boyfreind told Paris Hilton he destoryed those tapes at the end of the relationship, too. )

Bruce, you mention the word “absurd” in your opening line, but then qualify it with “almost too”. I think that’s way too generous.

For Real February 16, 2007 12:23 PM

@Andrew. Paris Hilton’s tape was clearly advertising. Quite successful, too; who ever heard of her before the tape.
As for the article, it’s advertising also, it’s just an advertisement for a police state.

nzruss February 16, 2007 12:36 PM

“helping to ensure there are no false alarms”

The probability of “No false alarms” and 100% detection is very close to zero.

If they claim “no false alarms”, I suspect the system doesn’t work very well and is therefore worthless.

jammit February 16, 2007 1:32 PM

This will only make Al-Qaeda more accessible to the handicapped, although it would be hard for a blind and mute guy to use sign language saying “Allah Akbar” three times while reaching for the detonator. I know this computer camera system is totally bogus, but I find it hard to believe a computer is any better at discerning facial expressions better than a human.

Anonymous February 16, 2007 1:43 PM


How would they even KNOW there’s no false alarms?

A false alarm is when it says “There’s a terrorist in seat 29B”. But during testing, they will probably use testers, and not real terrorists. But all the testers are impersonating terrorists, so if the alarm goes off, it’s wrong.

I have this high-tech device constructed from specially treated ceramics. It glows blue when aliens are about to invade. It hasn’t glowed blue yet, therefore 100% no false alarms. I bought this device at Home Depot, where they called it a brick.

Geoff Lane February 16, 2007 2:48 PM

Would a suicide terrorist be anxious? Having made his peace with his god he would go to his death with joy in his heart knowing that within minutes he would be in paradise with 72 virgins to serve his every need while all the godless infidels would be burning lumps of flesh traveling at terminal velocity straight down to hell.

Just how clueless does one have to be to think that the emotional condition of anybody is an indication of intent without supporting evidence?

nzruss February 16, 2007 3:06 PM

at Anonymous (~two posts up)

A false alarm is when they get an indication there IS a terrorist, and it turns out (after 2 years in GTMO and a whole bunch of waterboarding) that he is not.

Measuring false alarms is usually very easy.

The difficulty is measuring success. The only way to achieve 100% detection is to treat everyone as a terrorist. (sound familiar??)

Of course you may determine that the system is not 100% if the terrorist does manage to blow the up plane. Of course the manufacturer of the seat detector will claim that its detection algorithm was perfect, just the terrorist defeated the installation with a post-it note / grease / jacket on a hook / sunglasses / magic and careful trickery etc….

Peter February 16, 2007 3:39 PM

The only thing I can think of is that some company press release got turned into real news without a whole lot of thinking.

This happens far more often than you’d think.

I suspect the recording of conversations will cause business travellers to abandon commercial air travel as Kevin’s idea suggests.

Hematite February 16, 2007 3:48 PM

This may be a stupid question (stupid question for a stupid story…), but how do they know that islamic terrorists whisper passages of the Koran? Presumably suicide bombers and their immdediate neighbours almost always die, so who heard the whisper? Are suicide bombers routinely caught on surveillance cameras?

markm February 16, 2007 4:20 PM

“The probability of “No false alarms” and 100% detection is very close to zero.” Amen to that. I’ve got a simple way to ensure there are no false alarms – turn it off. Otherwise, there are just about guaranteed to be many more false alarms than real ones, because (we all hope) actual terror attacks are so rare.

As for anonymous’s blue glowing brick: have you ever heard the story about “May this house be safe from tigers”?

Matthew Skala February 16, 2007 10:51 PM

Hematite – Some suicide bombers fail to kill all the people within earshot. Some kill themselves within range of a microphone which has already sent their remarks to remote listeners or recording devices before it’s subsequently destroyed. And of course there may be information available before the bombers die on what they’re trained to do, or say they intend to do – though of course that might not be a perfect predictor of what they’ll really do when the moment arrives.

averros February 18, 2007 2:57 AM

Do not forget to pay your taxes.

Somebody’s got to pay the people who make us more “secure”. That means YOU.

Oh, you don’t want to pay for that? Heh. Welcome to the prison and kiss the cop’s baton.

So far nobody managed to explain even half-convincingly how what the governments do differs from the extortion racket. Protecting its unwilling customers from the danger of some misfortunes – created by this gang in the first place.

It is useless to bitch about the stupidity of the security theater – it was never intended to improve security in the first place. Its only purpose is to keep the taxpayers scared and docile, so the extortion can go on unimpeded. So far, this works beautifully. Despite the popular sentiment, the federal security establishment is quite competent – in their real profession – hoodwinking The People.

deputycleric February 18, 2007 12:55 PM

Of course, they would never put a camera in the plane’s restroom… would they?

Have they already?

It seems like the logical place for a suicide bomber to “do the necessary”…

Ctrl-Alt-Del February 18, 2007 5:54 PM

I’m sure there would be no false positives. After all, being cooped up for 14 hours with 400 strangers of dubious sanity with inadequate space, poor air, random lighting and a screwed up body clock is clearly unlikely to cause any odd behaviour such as rapid blinking, licking your lips, or playing with your hair. Especially when you know your expressions and mutters are being recorded.

The suggestion about deleting the recordings at the end of every flight is obviously not serious. After all, it would be a waste of good profiling data. The recordings should be kept for a minimum of 40 years. Privacy concerns can be addressed by restricting access to the recordings to properly authorised individuals and organisations.


Your suggestion is actually more plausible than the “news” story. Odds are a terrorist will need to do some assembly on their weaponry and the likeliest place to do this is a toilet. An eye in the loo beats 80 in the seat backs!

But if plane loos are bugged, don’t expect to be told about it. After all, we don’t want to tip off the terrorists!

markm February 19, 2007 5:27 AM

“So far nobody managed to explain even half-convincingly how what the governments do differs from the extortion racket.” You get to vote for whether gang D or gang R will be recklessly spending the money they extort from you. For some reason, our forefathers felt that was important enough to fight professional armies with their hunting weapons…

sukotto February 20, 2007 1:44 PM

I frequently get seats where the headphone jacks are broken.
The planes often have problems with the entertainment systems, and even the loudspeakers often don’t work very well.

I really doubt any airline is going to keep such delicate electronics as this big brother system in working order…. were they foolish enough to actually install such things.

bzelbob February 23, 2007 9:44 AM

Speaking of airline seats…does anyone here feel that airline seats are “stress positions”?

We sit in airline seats that are too small, that you are strapped into, that don’t allow you to get comfortable, feed you terrible food, provide the tiniest of bathrooms, make you sit in these seats sometimes for 8+ hours; then on top of that they’re going to put cameras and microphones in to watch you?

So how is this not prison?

zagam August 21, 2008 5:23 PM

bzelbob is right. Airline seats are designed to place the occupant in a stress position. Why are these safety issues not looked at?

The first problem is that the back is convex which places the spine extensors under stress for long time. This results in slumping and flexion of the spine.

The second problem is the back rest is not perpendicular to the seat. This causes shear stress to the skin which prevents blood returning back to the body and is possibly responsible for many of the cases of DVT.

If you wanted to avoid stress for people of varying heights the back rest would be flat and padded. When close to upright the back rest would be perpendicular to the seat. Both the backrest and the seat would be reclined together sufficiently such that you fall back in to the seat rather than be held in the stress position.

I have a spinal injury which means noxious stimuli below the injury cause AD which can cause severe hypertension and death.

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