More on Airplane Seat Cameras

I already blogged this once: an airplane-seat camera system that tries to detect terrorists before they leap up and do whatever they were planning on doing. Amazingly enough, the EU is “testing” this system:

Each camera tracks passengers’ facial expressions, with the footage then analysed by software to detect developing terrorist activity or potential air rage. Six wide-angle cameras are also positioned to monitor the plane’s aisles, presumably to catch anyone standing by the cockpit door with a suspiciously crusty bread roll.

But since people never sit still on planes, the software’s also designed so that footage from multiple cameras can be analysed. So, if one person continually walks from his seat to the bathroom, then several cameras can be used to track his facial movements.

The software watches for all sorts of other terrorist-like activities too, including running in the cabin, someone nervously touching their face or excessive sweating. An innocent nose scratch won’t see the F16s scrambled, but a combination of several threat indicators could trigger a red alert.

This pegs the stupid meter. All it will do is false alarm. No one has any idea what sorts of facial characteristics are unique to terrorists. And how in the world are they “testing” this system without any real terrorists? In any case, what happens when the alarm goes off? How exactly is a ten-second warning going to save people?

Sure, you can invent a terrorist tactic where a system like this, assuming it actually works, saves people—but that’s the very definition of a movie-plot threat. How about we spend this money on something that’s effective in more than just a few carefully chosen scenarios?

Posted on June 4, 2008 at 12:05 PM57 Comments


Infosponge June 4, 2008 12:19 PM

This thing is going to be 100% effective: 100% effective at misidentifying nervous fliers, people with anxiety disorders, and people with sweating disorders as potential terrorists.

How many nervous fliers are ever going to set foot on an aircraft if sweating and scratching their noses “too much” could result in them being detained without trial as possible terrorists?

JB June 4, 2008 12:20 PM

“relies on video cameras being built into every passenger’s seat.”

Too bad for first person to “spill” some airline offered OJ on the lens and distort the image causing the plane to be diverted. Heck, even a small piece of tape breaks the system….

shakes his head

Anonymous32 June 4, 2008 12:21 PM

“This pegs the stupid meter.”

Many people say, “LOL”. I really really did sputter and laugh.

jammit June 4, 2008 12:29 PM

Wouldn’t be easier, cheaper and make us more secure if instead of catching the “bad guys” after they happen to get on the plane, but scan us before getting on a plane. If we’re not found to have a weapon, one will be provided. Could you imagine grandma getting pissed because some “bad guy” decided to make an impromptu course change and she (and forty others) whip out their socks filled with doorknobs?

Pat Cahalan June 4, 2008 12:31 PM

I hope I don’t have intestinal problems on a plane in the EU.

Can you imagine having the equivalent of an Air Marshal bust in on you in the head because your multiple trips to the lavatory tripped the “terrorometer”?

Tesla June 4, 2008 12:31 PM

As though “thoughtcrimes” weren’t bad enough, now we have “facecrimes”?

Sticking out your tongue could be tantamount to murder.

Anonymous June 4, 2008 12:36 PM

Awesome, so now all children and everyone afraid of flying is now a terrorist.

Not really a concern; most airlines dont seem to care if their planes will barely keep together in the air, I am certain nobody will actually dish out the cash to implement this.

Another note: are terrorists nervous?

alan June 4, 2008 12:58 PM

I find it funny that you can determine what a person is thinking by the look on his face.

Does he show fear? How do you know the cause of the fear? The fear could be caused by fear of the plane crashing, the fear of being falsely branded a terrorist, the fear of the job interview he is flying to, the fear that is caused by social anxiety, or a whole host of fears real or imagined.

The same goes for any emotion. The reason for that emotion may not be something immediate, but something that happens at the end of the flight, or something that may not happen at all.

The whole idea of using facial recognition to find witches^wterrorists, is absurd.

Erik N June 4, 2008 1:05 PM

Calm down. The EU fund lots of proyects and there’s lots of money up for grabs if you can convince your idea is innovative. The point is that by spending money on these projects, it makes the EU appear more innovative and up front with tech. In the statistics it counts, in real world it’s just hot air.

The funny thing is that you don’t have to reach any conclusive results to get the money, just to show that you’re working on it and likely need more money. The EU is happy to spend the money, once money has been allocated for innovation and research you gotta get rid of it or they will cut next year. And no one is willing to admit that they funded obviously flawed projects by cutting funds, it’s much easier to let things pass by and hope no one else notice.

Getting EU funding is more or less equivalent to a guarantee that no working product will ever emerge.

The bad thing is that the really brilliant ideas don’t get funding because they fade beside the ridiculously far out. And when non-techs administer money, they just seem to go for the ridiculous…


Garrett G. June 4, 2008 1:11 PM

I basically agree with your post & the comments it generated. Allow me to satirically state that, on the up-side, this will “generate jobs” for people, albeit, in economically unproductive capacities.

Seriously though, I DO suspect that the face can be very revealing. Books like “Blink” (by Malcolm Gladwell) go into some detail on how “micro-expressions” can the a window into our deeper thoughts and intentions. However, what I find suspect is the idea that a machine can discern such intentions. I find that idea highly dubious indeed, and fraught with false positives.

cmos June 4, 2008 1:16 PM

… So terrorist’s have to wear balaclava’s to prevent the scanner from going off? Well, isnt that ironic.

Nicko June 4, 2008 1:30 PM

“How exactly is a ten-second warning going to save people?”

Well, it gives one Air Marshal a chance to put his doughnut down and wake the other marshal…

Chase Venters June 4, 2008 2:02 PM

To me, the most serious problems such a system presents isn’t the false alarms at all — its the rapid pace at which the governments of the US and UK seem to be marching towards 1984.

Portico June 4, 2008 2:06 PM

Think about people playing their hand held video games. I know my face can change quite a bit after falling down the same pit three times in a row.

Davi Ottenheimer June 4, 2008 2:20 PM

geez, i can imagine someone trying to sell this into the video-phone market for business spaces as well. maybe if the system could detect fraud/lying in the office…imagine talking to a broker and having the videophone give you a “trust” indicator next to their face.

Bernie June 4, 2008 2:22 PM

And in related news, in-flight movies are now illegal as they may cause false positives. When going through security, your laptops, iPods, etc. will be cleansed of all movie files that might cause an emotional reaction when watched. Only movies such as videos of calm faces will be allow.

Reader X June 4, 2008 2:23 PM

“Can you imagine having the equivalent of an Air Marshal bust in on you in the head because your multiple trips to the lavatory tripped the “terrorometer”?”

Don’t laugh. I was very ill on a flight once, and the flight attendant came back and banged on the lavatory door until I opened it. She explained that I could not be in the lavatory for an extended period, because I might be a terrorist. I explained that the alternative was going to be unpleasant, at least for the people sitting near me. But no luck, I had to shuffle back and forth repeatedly until we landed. Next time I will simply stay in my seat.

“So terrorist’s have to wear balaclava’s to prevent the scanner from going off?”

I don’t believe Muslim women are required to remove their veils on airplanes, certainly not on flights to and from the Middle East.

Andre LePlume June 4, 2008 2:35 PM

Brussels 07-05-2009 (Reuters) – Officials today expressed their optimism at results from the latest round of testing of AntiTerrorSkyCam(TM). Although the base system itself was unable to successfully distingtuish terrorists from non-terrorists (or from empty seats, covers of popular novels, or sock puppets), an extension to the system whereby DNA samples from seated passengers will be unobtrusively collected and matched in near-real time against the growing trans-national database of DNA from terrorists, convicted felons, traffic offenders, and residents of Truro, Massachusetts promises to substantially increase effectiveness….

Picador June 4, 2008 2:38 PM

Oh great, I suppose you WANT the face-touchers to win!

Why do you hate freedom?

Ravan June 4, 2008 2:41 PM

Hmmm. Sweating – eat something with hot peppers. Angry or nervous – read any propaganda put out by the lunatic fringe passing it off as “news”.

False positive land.

Logan June 4, 2008 3:10 PM

“More on Airplane Seat Cameras” -> “Moron Airplane Seat Cameras”?

If the technology works, expect it to be extended to other things we have wars on, like drugs and obesity (passenger is consuming too many bags of peanuts!).

Mr. Acne June 4, 2008 3:16 PM

Oh boy, I’d better not pop zits and squeeze out blackheads on planes now! 😀

Martin June 4, 2008 3:19 PM

I guess it can draw colored rectangles around faces, which totally convinced EU politicians and security officials.

I want my taxeuros back :-/

Panzer June 4, 2008 3:24 PM

Poker players and Botox users are already immune to this sort of analysis…

Thom June 4, 2008 3:29 PM

I assume that video, and possibly audio, will be recorded once a potential threat is identified.

Hmmm, let’s see how the airlines react when one of their snotty flight attendants mistreats a passenger or two then inappropriately threatens or reports the passenger to security. Now instead of a bad headline and “he said she said” calims there will be video and audio backing up the passenger’s claims.

String of huge lawsuits in 3…2….1

Des June 4, 2008 4:12 PM

How cool is this, however terrorists are great thespians so therefore not only trained to kill they can act too. So I am afraid this may not work

Mike June 4, 2008 4:18 PM

My bigger concern is the weight of the system and the extra fuel required to carry it. Why not use this weight for a better in-flight entertainment system?

The cameras could provide additional forensic evidence after the fact, and would more likely be used to document bad passenger-employee interactions, but I would have concerns if the footage was not public domain.

Nomen Publicus June 4, 2008 4:19 PM

This is about scientifically valid as carrying your own bomb on the flight on the basis that one bomb on a plane is extremely rare, two bombs is next to impossible 🙂

Sadly this is yet another scheme based on the broken idea that a lot of low quality data is as good as a little high quality information.

Dave-O June 4, 2008 5:04 PM

jammit has a point (not the socks with door knobs, although that was hilarious), why not put these cameras in the security line and the terminal? I haven’t had a pleasant flight experience in… well, ever; now my expression might reroute the plane? That would be trilling.

All the concerns about air marshals are misplaced, they can’t get off the no fly list!

Keith June 4, 2008 5:43 PM

I’m sorry I didn’t think of this earlier, but I guess it’s probably far too ridiculous for the movie plot contest.

Nick Lancaster June 4, 2008 6:16 PM

So would a parent upset with their small child be regarded as showing facial indicators of anger or emotional turmoil associated with blowing things up?

How about those of us who like to play things like SOCOM on our Sony PSPs?

And how are you going to enforce the system? What’s to stop me taking a piece of tape and covering the lens (unless it’s a ceiling-mounted affair looking back over a section), or wearing a light-blocking blindfold because I want to catch some z’s on a long flight?

Can I push back my sunglasses with my middle finger and not get arrested by tight-arsed flight attendants?

alan June 4, 2008 6:49 PM

I have only one thing to say about these cameras…


Apply liberally.

Thoth June 4, 2008 7:09 PM

One of the most stupid inventions indeed. Not surprisingly would trigger many false alarms and cause many inconveniences and somehow let one or two of those real terrorist slip through ?

Bernie June 4, 2008 7:40 PM

And in related news, unpleasant customer-employee interactions are now illegal as they may cause false positives. Either passengers or flight attendants — but not both — will be allowed on board. Just in case that procedure doesn’t work well enough, Plan B will be to dress everyone as flight attendants and have the software automatically ignore all people dressed as flight attendants.

David June 4, 2008 9:36 PM

Assuming this thing might actually take off (so to speak!), how do they propose gathering baseline data?

We would need to have numerous terrorists taking flights where they specifically DO intend some ‘nasty’ act so that we can understand how to distinguish them from non-terrorists.

Good luck doing THAT research!

Angel One June 4, 2008 10:11 PM

Great, so the next time I get indigestion from the airline food and have to go running to the bathroom a lot I’ll get labeled a terrorist.

Richard June 4, 2008 11:55 PM

If this system actually arrives I can only wait to be arrested as a potential terrorist. Actually I like flying and I have to sit on a plane twice a week but:

  • It’s usually way too warm
  • There’s way too little space to be comfortable especially if the typical obese person sits in the middle seat.

So besides me normally being a completely calm flyier there are flights where I tend to be nervous, anxious to get off, a little more sweaty than normal etc.

all2human June 5, 2008 12:14 AM

Just saw the 1996 movie, Executive Decision.
Cameras would have helped and hurt. Once plan is taken, tech be used for bad purposes.
Censorship and open to ideas +- and attribute ability is central to security mindset…
It takes an open mind for reality to be securitized.

TheDoctor June 5, 2008 2:03 AM

Reality check:
The software needed for this task, even the basic one (face recognition, tracking etc.) is by NO means up to such a task.
This is simply milking money from stupid governments with science fiction.

CJ June 5, 2008 2:06 AM

Never mind all the false alarms – I don’t want to sit on a 10 hour flight being recorded all the time! That would make me very uncomfortable and self-conscious.

And if this ever was implemented, would be on all airlines or only some? And I bet it would be difficult to find out before hand whether the airline you plan to fly has it… it’s bad enough trying to find out if they have individual seat-back entertainment units or those silly one-per-section screens that you can never see properly.

TheDoctor June 5, 2008 2:13 AM

Ah, and I forgot:
Simply discussing the implications of such a system is too much grace for those morons who try to implement such a system.
They should be outcast from every scientific community in the world.

DA June 5, 2008 3:04 AM

… and, of course, terrorists are known to only attack planes. They never target, say, a London bus, a train in Madrid, or a nightclub on Bali.

greg June 5, 2008 3:18 AM

This is admitting that all current procedures don’t work.

So can i have my water now?

Graham June 5, 2008 3:45 AM

“No one has any idea what sorts of facial characteristics are unique to terrorists.”

I beg to differ here – I can tell you exactly what facial characteristics are unique to terrorists. None!

I would put money on the fact that for every terrorist with particular facial characteristics, there is at least one non-terrorist with the same.

For example, nervously touching their face or excess sweating could very simply just be somebody who doesn’t like flying, and running in the cabins could be kids – either the kids themselves or the parents trying to catch them.

Malcolm June 5, 2008 5:24 AM

There’s one countermeasure that immediately comes to mind, and should be guarded against. I await with happy anticipation the thought of Botoxed celebs getting onto no-fly lists…

Though someone with Bell’s Palsy might not be so happy.

TES June 5, 2008 6:12 AM

All this will do is make joining the Mile High club that much more difficult.

The furtive glances at where the hostesses are, checking who is looking at you, you and your partner making a coordinated move to the toilets

Roy June 5, 2008 6:36 AM

There are two good ways to avoid false positives, either reduce the sensitivity to zero so that nothing is ever detected, or else run the equipment in the standby mode so that nothing is ever examined.

This isn’t science fiction, it’s fantasy

Adam Lock June 5, 2008 7:07 AM

Not-quite-terrorists could use these cameras to launch a denial of service attack. Board a plane, pull a few faces, and hey presto the plane gets diverted to Nova Scotia. If you’re extra lucky, the US air force escort blows up the plane for you. What exactly could anyone charge you with?

D0R June 5, 2008 9:11 AM

“No one has any idea what sorts of facial characteristics are unique to terrorists.”

Well, probably they think they do, after watching a lot of Steven Seagal’s and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s movies…

Anonymous June 5, 2008 9:57 AM

Facial database, and voice print. Got name, who with etc.
More info for government computers. Can help for edge cases. Can also hurt with privacy abuses, targetting of some. Data collection is powerful. Airlines get to collect and sell info for a profit.
Face it, the TIA, Total Information Awareness, world exists and is increasing everywhere.

What would suck, is false positives and other weird cases. Security of databases are not good either.

The movie, The Net, 1995. Sure is coming around.

Time to move to another planet or solor system.

derf June 5, 2008 11:43 AM

Seems to me that if you have this type of system onboard that you’d need a jail or brig of a size to hold a certain number of passengers in custody when they are caught committing a facecrime. I know I’ve been rather upset at the stupidity of the airlines at times and I know it shows on my face. I’d want to be sure my rights weren’t being violated in the same tradition as our terrestrial federal prisons, so the airplane brig will need cable TV, air conditioning, weight room, and a golf course.

John Smith June 11, 2008 6:39 AM

It’s not fun when stupid people run our business and lot of ignorant people accept it.

JP July 5, 2008 6:13 AM

I presume I’ll get arested every time I take the plane, once this system is operational. I’m often quite itching, especially when inactive and bored, like on a plane.

Circumspekt April 13, 2009 9:23 AM

In Dec, 1999, a customs agent at Port Angeles, Washington, saw a man sweating profusely as he sat int he back of a line of cars exiting a ferry from Canada. She made him pop his trunk, and found enough explosives to level a good section of LAX, which he later admitted was his target.

So yeah, given the right software, with the right calibration, something like this could potentially stop a threat. Would there be false alarms? Sure. Would all the false alarms be worth it if one plane-load of people was saved…?

I’d probably be inclined to object to this sort of thing being implemented in the States just on Big Brother grounds though. Probably.

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