Fleecing Uncle Patsy

Beats Working

April 6, 2007

Human ingenuity is a wonderful thing, especially when combined with the instincts of a pickpocket. The following is from the Daily Mail.

“Tiny cameras the size of a fingernail linked to specialist computers are to be used to monitor the behaviour of airline passengers as part of the war on terrorism.” To find out whether they look nervous, see.

Yay-yesss! Rejoice! Brethren, we are now stark bonkers. In the hills, not of Galilee but maybe of Yorkshire a new industry is come unto us. Not a sparrow shall fall without some damnfool otherwise-unemployable at Homeland Security watching. Henceforth God will be seen as comparatively inalert, perhaps reading computer magazines and dozing off on his watch. Yes, the Divine will be replaced by tiny little cameras. For a price.

Listen to this. It’s wonderful. BAE Systems, just incidentally a defense contractor, is busily designing a seat with not only a little camera, but also a microphone.

“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.”

Why the microphone? At first I thought the Daily Mail was testing a parody generator, but it seems to be serious.

"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.”

What in the name of…well, the Comparatively Inalert, I guess…is this foolishness supposed to accomplish? Think about it. To begin with, will the airplane have special mumbled-Koran-detection software, fluent in Arabic? What good would it do?

The guy mumbles “moments” before he explodes the bomb. Sirens sound, lights flash. A screen in the cockpit flashes “Mumbled Koran, seat 34-F.” The terrorist won’t notice this, of course, and just push the button. I suppose that the air marshal would rush up and shoot him in the head, whereupon it would turn out that he was a bulk-lot soap jobber from Lebanon, muttering about what a sumbitch his boss was.

Note that the microphone is going to “record even whispered remarks.” To be listened to by whom? When? Since the terrorist has a bomb, the plane isn’t going to land. And if he isn’t a terrorist, who cares what he says? (“Hey, Sally, how ‘bout a nooner in London?”) Or maybe there will be a bank of Arabic-speakers in a secret compartment, wearing headphones and listening earnestly to even whispered remarks.

I can see that a lot of thought has gone into this.

What about false positives, which in practice will probably be all positives? You have three hundred people on the aircraft. Some, afraid of flying, mumble prayers, sweat, twitch. People with minor obsessive-compulsive disorder clear their throats, blink in sets of seven, blow on their fingers, and pull their earlobes. Some anarchist, tired of being watched, puts his chewing gum over the camera.

Every fifteen minutes the Terror Alarm goes off. The stews rush to the seat and strip search the suspected terr while the air marshal, dressed like a cheap divorce-attorney, waves his hog leg threateningly.

In practice of course everyone would simply ignore the alarms. Real terrorists would carefully avoid twitching or mumbling the Koran. In any event, once the plane is airborne the potential mumbler could just pull the pin. Take-off speed and an altitude of two hundred feet are perfectly adequate to make a gaudy mess of an airliner.

But more from the Daily Mail. "We're trying to develop technologies that indicate the differences between normal passengers and those who may be a threat to others, or themselves," said Catherine Neary of BAE Systems."

She is the leader of the team developing the watchful seat. Note the usual female preoccupation with safety at all costs, even when there is noting to be afraid of. She has moved from terror of terrorists to the realm of the remote but imaginable threat from the passenger in the next seat. Dodge ball also is dangerous, and second-hand smoke, and everything else. Angst, worry, and the man under the bed.

What is this logical contortionism really about? Money. Let me explain. I do so as one who spent many years reporting on the defense industry.

Commerce watches government as a tick watches a cow. Getting money from the government is immensely profitable and in general easy, since the people who dispense it do not own it and so do not care what is done with it. Industry, understanding this perfectly, is always looking for something to sell to the government.

After New York, a huge market sprang up for the paraphernalia of security: metal detectors, x-ray gadgets for baggage, and such like. These things cost whole bunches. Airports after all have lots of gates. Here was a Comstock Lode for tech industry. Further, a new federal bureaucracy came into being, hiring large numbers of people, screeners and marshals and supervisory ‘crats, who suddenly had a monetary interest in terrorism. When you get paid for solving a problem, the last thing you want to do is to solve it. Where would exterminators be without cockroaches?

Having sold Uncle Patsy all of these pricey contrivances, what does industry then do? The things last for years. Sure, there are maintenance contracts, but the real gravy is in selling things to the feds. The trick is to build upgraded and improved security gadgets. Thus we get pricey explosives-sniffers that any sophomore chemistry-major could circumvent, but that are certainly pricey, which is the point. Then we get semi-pornographic x-ray machines, which also cost a lot, which is again the point.

But these markets get saturated. To open the money drains yet wider, one needs completely new products. So engineers sit around and think, “How about…ejection seats for all passengers? Nah, not even the feds are that stupid. Uh, maybe shock-trauma modules to fit in the cargo bay? Hey, I got it! How about seats with little cameras, see, and we could record mumbled stuff from—what’s that book? Just the thing!”

Just the thing indeed. Think how many airliners there are, and multiply by the numbers of seats. BAE Systems or somebody would get to install a camera and microphone in each seat, along with the monumental amount of wiring needed (a wireless version would be an early and expensive upgrade) as well as the computers to monitor them. The MKD software would be a juicy contract by itself, with of course mumbled-Farsi and mumbled-Pashtu as expensive upgrades.

Cut-purses, footpads, blackguards, doxies, defense contractors, and siphoners of gas tanks. Same people. Don’t blink on your next flight, or its off to the calaboose.