Psychoecology and the DHS


The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has gone to many strange places in its search for ways to identify terrorists before they attack, but perhaps none stranger than this lab on the outskirts of Russia’s capital. The institute has for years served as the center of an obscure field of human behavior study — dubbed psychoecology — that traces it roots back to Soviet-era mind control research.


SSRM Tek is presented to a subject as an innocent computer game that flashes subliminal images across the screen — like pictures of Osama bin Laden or the World Trade Center. The “player” — a traveler at an airport screening line, for example — presses a button in response to the images, without consciously registering what he or she is looking at. The terrorist’s response to the scrambled image involuntarily differs from the innocent person’s, according to the theory.

Posted on September 24, 2007 at 7:34 AM43 Comments


Sean September 24, 2007 8:40 AM

We’ll have to see how this turns out, but I place just as much faith in it as I do the dowsing rod bomb detectors I saw in action on a show once. It’s kind of funny watching a guy running around with a pair of handles with ball bearing mounted wires and not think back to when I was a kid and our landlord had a dowser in to find a dry hole.

Beta September 24, 2007 8:44 AM

This looks very much like bunkum, but that doesn’t stop DHS from spending good money on it and making life difficult for people who don’t respond as expected.

(And if it did work it would open the door to some horrendous invasion of privacy.)

Thuktun September 24, 2007 8:48 AM

Wouldn’t this psychological approach essentially “catch” people with the wrong opinions, rather than people with ill intent?

I could have sworn the TSA and other security arms of the DHS were supposed to be protecting everyone from terrorists rather than terrorist sympathizers or other thoughtcrime.

Nick Lancaster September 24, 2007 9:14 AM

And how, exactly, is this going to be of use in an airport or any other high-traffic area?

“Please empty your pockets, remove all metal from your person, take off your shoes … and, oh, would you play this video game?”

I suspect this system will have a promising success rate until it doesn’t, much like the rest of the nonsense we’ve adopted in the name of security.

RC September 24, 2007 9:17 AM

supposing that there is some validity to this approach:

If there are false positives, how does you prove that you are not a terrorist if the basis for the accusation is a response to a subliminal image? You are basically accused of a thought crime.

What is the false negative rate of an approach such as this?

Shachar Shemesh September 24, 2007 9:24 AM

Last I heard, subliminal messages were no more effective for advertising than open advertising (which is, actually, a good thing, as it means that we can allow subliminal adverts, which are less annoying, into standard television).

Which suggests (pure speculation on my part) that this is baseless.


Shad September 24, 2007 9:29 AM

The brain really shows a characteristic wave pattern when shown a familiar scene. There are also running experiments with measuring brain responses to images, which could allow classifying imagery faster than a system depending on conscious response of the operator could.

More interesting thought is how they want to determine if the interrogatees are reacting to a similarity with a scene they saw in real world, or if they are responding to a similarity with some Hollywood production. Or if they are a Nam or Iraq vets with real IED experience.

I expect them to get some results in controlled lab conditions and unusably high false positive rate in any subsequent real-life deployment.

Michael Ash: I’d try the School of Americas graduates.

Carlo Graziani September 24, 2007 10:26 AM

This is no different from polygraph screening, really. The Feds place an equally mystico-religious reliance on polygraphs to conduct routine loyalty screenings of employees in (and hires to) sensitive positions, despite the abundant evidence compiled by the National Academy of Science that polygraphs are worthless for screening.

So yes, this is almost certainly pseudo-scientific flim-flam, but there’s plenty of precedent for the government buying into this kind of thing.

mfheadcase September 24, 2007 10:29 AM

Ummmm… seems to me that there is also a strong cultural bias as the test is described… would this have caught Tim McVeigh? Or the terrorist who detonated an antipersonnel bomb at the Atlanta Olympics? Both were American whackjob, rightwing Christians.

Even if this were 100% effective at catching Islamic Jihadists, with no false positives OR negatives… Doest it really help if cultural bias in the testing lets other known flavors of terrorists through?

And that is without even going into the horrors of detainment for thought crimes.

Fred X. Quinby September 24, 2007 10:54 AM

Sounds like hokum, but if it isn’t, you can flash relevant jihadist slogans in arabic, refer to apocalyptic biblical passages by chapter and verse notation, Red Brigade graffiti, and any other number of culturally biased images until you get a match or the victim has a seizure.

Sounds neat, but when it’s all said and done you will have a machine that is very good at catching counter-terrorism experts.

George September 24, 2007 10:58 AM

Like the polygraph, a computerized subliminal image test is tremendously appealing to security apparatchiks. It exudes a “scientific” aura, and it may intimidate the unwary just enough to coincidentally obtain a few useful “catches” that “validate” it. More importantly, it’s a very useful piece of smoke-and-mirrors to conceal the unfortunate (and highly embarrassing) fact that no device actually exists that can reliably detect either liars or terrorists.

Like everything else the bushista “Homeland Security” bureaucracy foists on us, it may be utter hokum but it’s the best they’ve got. But their consistent approach has been that it’s more important to give the appearance of “doing something” than for that “something” to be effective.

Another prop for the Security Theater.

Rick Auricchio September 24, 2007 11:34 AM

My only disappointment with this scheme is that I didn’t think of it.

I often feel guilty that I haven’t been smart enough to ride the DHS gravy-train, since they’re wasting millions on stupid ideas.

It is morally wrong to let a fool keep his money…

Nick Lancaster September 24, 2007 11:40 AM

And suddenly, I am reminded of Dr. Gaius Baltar’s ‘cylon detector’ from Battlestar Galactica …

Have we really sunk to the level of buying comet pills? Egads. (That’s a rhetorical question, folks.)

Matthew Skala September 24, 2007 11:44 AM

If you take the test enough times, do the images become familiar because you’ve seen them so often (in the test itself), so that you then start to “fail” the test? If all frequent flyers test as terrorists, hilarity will ensue.

Nick Lancaster September 24, 2007 11:54 AM

I’m not up on the current season of BSG (as Comcast took SFC off our basic lineup, and I don’t watch enough TV to justify the extra $$$) … but to my knowledge, the cylon detector didn’t work, by Baltar’s own admission to the imaginary (?) Six.

cmills September 24, 2007 12:02 PM

Scrambled images… subliminal messages? Sounds like some precursor to a mass re-educating system. Oh wait, most Americans already have one in their living rooms.

Nomen Publicus September 24, 2007 12:03 PM

Don’t know about Cylons, but it reminds me of the scene in Blade Runner where the replicant is being tested.

The next step by TSA will be to redefine people with the wrong responses to certain images as “non-human” and subject to deadly force to “protect citizens.”

cmills September 24, 2007 12:05 PM

Check out this gem (photo caption from the article):

“A dungeon-like room in the Psychotechnology Research Institute in Moscow is used for human testing. The institute claims its technology can read the subconscious mind and alter behavior.”

I’ll feel safer… if DHS programs my mind to feel safer.

Jeffrey Goines September 24, 2007 1:35 PM

Wouldn’t the daily consumption of, for example….2 video news feeds, 3 daily print mags and a few blogs scattered in for good measure whose context deals in “current” political information seed such “subliminal” triggers to where if at anytime those images/items were displayed/mentioned it would trigger a subconscious recognition of previously digested information?

Isn’t this system designed to fail by false positives alone?

cmills September 24, 2007 2:47 PM

@ Jeffrey Goines

I believe that it’s simply one of many fake security measures put in place to facilitate selective arrests and detainment. The government’s growing ability to surveille the public coupled with selective detainment points towards a communist-style shift.

X the Unknown September 24, 2007 5:58 PM

My father, a retired U.S. Air-Force officer, claims that part of their standard training was with silhouette recognition tests.

Silhouettes of allied, neutral, or enemy aircraft (and, I think, certain ground-vehicles) were flashed on a screen for 1/100th of a second. They had to identify them based on that flash.

Unless the DHS is talking Real Money for all of these Game-Stations, the screen refresh-rate is going to be somewhat less than 1/100 of a second. Television is 1/30, and most computer monitors default to 1/60.

Thus, it is quite reasonable to assume that a dedicated terrorist could be trained to consciously recognize the images in these brief flashes, and “game the system” by choosing the “right” button, instead of the “instinctive” one.

Creeped September 24, 2007 7:15 PM

I find the overall tone of the comments a bit too sarcastic and complacent.

Obviously, I’ve no idea whether the Russian Psychotechnology research will ever deliver useful results but I do suspect that attempts to peer into the brain will not go away soon.

Another recent example:

I seem to remember Bruce posting a security presentation in which he talked about a system that claimed to distinguish between a brain processing remembered visual data versus assimilating new visual data. The idea might be that police could show you a picture of a crime scene and determine whether or not you had seen it before by the way your brain processing reacted – nomatter what you tell them.

I find the whole thing quite creepy.

Carlo Graziani September 24, 2007 8:43 PM

Sam asks: “Why all the opposition to this idea? No-one considers that it’s based on sound science?”


If you want an idea of the kind of “science” the Feds rely on for picking bad apples out of a crowd, read the NAS report on Polygraphing. It’s available in toto on the web, at
At least read the executive summary. It’s depressingly hilarious. For decades, the loyalty of tens of thousands of government employees in sensitive positions has been secured by a procedure that’s been validated about at the same level of rigor as ouija boards.

Expecting technologies in this category to be subjected to honest scientific scrutiny by the government is extremely naive.

Sam September 24, 2007 9:07 PM

@Carlos – what does polygraphing have to do with this?

1st off, I disagree that “expecting .. scientific scrutiny by the gov’t” is naive. You will note that the article you linked is basically sponsored by the gov’t. Naive would be expecting gov’t to always make scientifically sound decisions, which of course they don’t, most of the time its driven by politics.

What I do expect is more out of the readers of this blog. I’m somewhat familiar with the theory being discussed here, and am blown away by how all the readers here are childishly dismissing it out of hand, INSTEAD of subjecting it to any scrutiny, scientific or otherwise.

I’m glad that homeland security apparently employs more open-minded people than the audience here.

Carlo Graziani September 24, 2007 9:20 PM

Sam, polygraphing is relevant because it is the gold standard by which the Federal Government judges this kind of technology. If the Russian stuff is “as reliable as polygraphing”, it’s a shoo-in for deployment. Even if that means it’s crap.

And the fact that the “article” (actually a report) was sponsored by “the government” is neither here nor there. That report was produced by NAS (a Non-Government Organization) under contract to DOE, as a result of pressure on DOE by Congress. No sooner was the report released that DOE disavowed the whole thing, essentially asserting that they knew better, because polygraphs just work, we say so, so there. The US Federal government still screens employees for loyalty this way. They know (or ought to know) it’s 100% bullshit. They do it anyway.

DigitalCommando September 25, 2007 12:56 AM

Heres a nice subliminal message to the DHS:

we F just U love C and K admire O your F wonderful F organization

bob September 25, 2007 6:39 AM

There has never been a spy who didnt have a Top Secret clearance. Maybe we should only allow people to see our secrets who dont qualify for a clearance?

Colossal Squi September 25, 2007 8:20 AM

Do you have any links to research in this area published in peer-reviewed journals?

a random JOhn September 25, 2007 11:55 AM

Malcom Gladwell’s Blink contains some similar examples that appear to be well accepted research. One such test is used to measure subconscious racism. I wouldn’t be surprised if this has some effectiveness, though it seems like a lot of effort.

Petréa Mitchell September 25, 2007 6:15 PM

@Sam: You link to interesting and scientifically supported topics (although there is a criticism that the design of the IAT trains the bias into subjects, which I haven’t seen answered yet). They are, however, nothing to do with the utter claptrap Bruce is quoting.

Petréa Mitchell September 25, 2007 6:16 PM

Ack, that should say “the apparent bias”. There may in fact be a bias already there but the test may be meddling with the very metric it’s measuring.

??? September 26, 2007 4:20 PM

Here’s the catch with any kind of test that determines if someone knows something–the test can only validly be given once–if you do it again, you could get a positive result due to the person’s memories of the last test.

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