I Smell an Expensive Boondoggle — Cameras and Microphones on Planes

A European Union project is trying to develop cameras and microphones to monitor passengers on airplanes and bomb sniffing equipment to detect explosive materials in lavatories.

Brussels is funding research at Reading University aimed at detecting suspicious behaviour on board aircraft.

A combination of cameras, microphones, explosive sniffers and a sophisticated computer system would give a pilot early warning of any danger. But the work will alarm civil liberties campaigners who fear the growth of the surveillance state.

Microphones would eavesdrop, listening out for anything which could suggest terrorist behaviour. Inside the lavatories explosives sniffers would detect if a bomb was being assembled.

All this information would be analysed by computer and if it spotted something untoward, the flight deck would be told instantly.

The key to the work is developing software which can spot a genuine threat. “We want to avoid saying that nervous passengers are potential terrorists,” Mr Ferryman said

If computers and software are flagging suspicious behavior, you’ll have both false negatives (so won’t help detect terrorists) and many false positives (distracting the flight deck and impeding safety).

We supposely have no fly lists to keep terrorists off planes, and behavior detection at airports. But we acknowledge those don’t work and somehow think computer behavior detection and scanning key words in conversations onboard is going to work better, instead it’s something other than flying the aircraft that we’ll be asking pilots to do. That won’t make us safer.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. This means everyone will have to selectively think about every word which they speak, less they be accused of malice. I am still expecting the day when all airline passengers will be required to wear flip flops and hospital gowns to go through security and fly on planes. The inmates are running the asylum.

  2. I think the explosives sniffers might be reasonable – if (and only if) they can deploy a system that works reliably. But I think microphones are a little far-fetched and certainly have potential for expensive boondoggle. Think about it, you could be discussing an episode of “24” with your friend and get flagged as a potential terrorist. How many terrorists are going to be discussing their plot while on the plane? I think travelers tend to keep their eyes and ears aware of their surroundings these days, which is likely to be a more reliable indicator of suspicious behavior than some computer analyzing a microphone. The shoe and underwear bombers were both caught by alert passengers.

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