The British government is launching a new initiative for technology to fight terrorism. As the BBC report it this will involve “real life versions of the scientist Q in the 007 films” getting funding for gadgets to defeat groups like al-Qaeda. The BBC even uses a picture of the fictional Q. But a closer look at the initiative suggests that much of the technology being sought is closer to George Orwell than James Bond.
The announcement is illustrated with a video of one of the programs under consideration, the Air Launch Running Gear Entanglement System. Danger Room looked at this a few months back as a possible anti-pirate weapon for use against small speedboats. The system releases a high-tensile line which snags on the boat’s propeller, immobilising it so that the stranded pirates/terrorists can be dealt with in due course. The version being demonstrated this time is fired from a bazooka-like weapon using compressed air giving it longer range. It would be useful for stopping a suspicious boat approaching a warship without having to blast it out of the water.
The initiative is known as Innovative Science and Technology in Counter-Terrorism (INSTINCT), and it’s part of the broader Science and Technology Counter-Terrorism Strategy known as CONTEST. It’s not all about stopping boats and defusing bombs though, as the website of a recent INSTINCT event shows.
Called “Intent in Crowded places” the event was held to solicit ideas on how to spot a terrorist in a crowd. Other initiatives look at spotting terrorists by sniffing out explosives but “In this instance we would like to concentrate on intent and behaviour. ” This means looking at any possible indicators of intent, however they might be detected:
INSTINCT seeks any innovative science or technology that could enhance our ability to understand, characterise, detect, or influence intent in crowded places, be it hostile or not. … While OSCT is interested in developing knowledge around hostile intent, the intent of those who are friendly or ambivalent is also important. The intent of the innocent in a terrorist incident is significant because it will affect the level of danger and the likelihood of injury. In a search scenario, it is important that we can focus effort on those who are most likely to have hostile intent.
This briefing goes on to explain that detecting non-hostile individuals is also useful, so the hostile ones can be identified by a process of elimination. It also describes some of the research that will be required to back it up, in terms of characterising and understanding exactly what “hostile intent” is and how it changes over time. Someone may start off with no particular intent but may become hostile in response to a particular stimulus (like “this way, sir, we need to do a full body search”). The domains being investigated include social science, neurology, psychology and related disciplines.
The program even goes as far as asking about influencing intent –- though this seems to be more about designing buildings to encourage safe movement away from danger than mind control rays.
Darpa’s have previously investigated brain-screening technology which might be able to detect intent, which led to some concern about prosecutions for “thoughtcrime.” And Darpa’s Rapid Checkpoint Screening Program looked at a range of physiological indicators to see whether it would be possible to spot whether someone was lying at a checkpoint interview (the answer appears to be “yes”, with some provisos), and whether the technology could be extended to read the body language, pulse rate and so on of people just standing in line.
Britain differs from America in the level of surveillance that is considered acceptable. Omnipresent CCTV cameras are a fact of life here, though their effectiveness in combatting crime and terrorism is still a matter of debate. The Evening Standard newspaper complained that in spite of over 10,000 official CCTV cameras, 80% of crimes in London remain unsolved. The existing network means that, unlike in the US, it would be relatively easy to deploy new technology to detect hostile intention alongside or within the CCTV set up.
Admiral Lord West, Britain’s counter terrorism minister, also mentioned to the BBC that there were other initiatives which include countering cyber terrorism and “investigating how to intercept new methods of telecommunications.”
New technology is clearly on the way. And it’s not just about providing James Bond with a boat-stopping bazooka.