Story Starter

BACK SHORTLY AFTER 9/11, Bruce Schneier wrote a column that appeared in Info World. At least, that’s how I remember it. At the time, I didn’t have a blog, and by the time I did, I’d lost all of my copies of the article. Now, I can get lots of returns in Bing-ing various keywords relating to Schneier and security, but I can’t find this particular article. (If somebody knows where I can, I’d love to hear about it.)

The article was about airliner security and contained a proposal for a simple security system that would have several unique attributes:

  • It could be put together from off-the-shelf parts available at the time.
  • It permitted total anonymity.
  • It allowed the building of a Federal security database of trust signifiers that would be, as I say, totally anonymous.
  • It was virtually unbreakable.
  • It seemed (to me) to be totally transparent. I did not see any opportunity for abuse, either by government or the general public.
  • It accomplished the twin goals of securing airliners against infiltration and attack by radicalized Islamist terrorists (or any other type of militant) and of permitting the free flow of traffic over the air routes.

And, in retrospect, it did not require a massive, unionized, intrusive, importunate Federal apparatus to accomplish its goals. Correction: it could accomplish its goals whereas the current TSA farrago cannot and will never accomplish its goals.

The system was founded on two bases. First, the recognition of the core fact that the state (or any protective agency) does not need to know the identities of those accessing an object, a vehicle, or a facility. All that needs to be known is whether or not the person(s) gaining that access are worthy of the trust that they would do no harm having gained the access. Second, there must be no way that the system can be gamed by any participants — either the government or the people earning the trust of the system.

The system consisted of three objects — a trust token, say an ID card; a verification method, say a retina or iris scan; and a database that would connect the unique yet anonymous identifier on the card with the verification method — for the most part, a biometric. If you’re familiar with a QR code, that would be your identifier. It would be on a card that the person wishing access would carry. That code would pass to the system a resource locator that would link to a database record containing ONLY the results of a series of tests the bearer of the card has passed and the degree of trust to which these passages would grant the bearer. The same card would be born by an electrical engineering student from Saudi Arabia who has overstayed his student visa and an 80-year-old granny from Vero Beach and a Federal Air Marshall.

The tests, as I recall Schneier proposed, would consist of what Schneier called (and were misidentified as) Farwell Brain Scans. These are specialized EEGs taken while the subject is watching a prepared video or slide show of particular objects. Supposedly, since the responses to the stimuli offered are totally involuntary, there’s no way to beat this. The types of images shown would isolate a person’s experience. It would not necessarily by itself grant or deny access, but might indicate probable cause for further investigation.I tell you that to tell you this:

Monday, the Supreme Court struck down an Arizona law which expanded on the Federal law regarding the requirements for voting. Arizona wanted to require photo IDs, but the Federal law only requires a signature affirming an assertion of citizenship (under penalty of perjury). It seems clear that the Federal specifications are far less intrusive into the privacy of the individual. Of course, it requires that the prospective voter be honest. The Arizona method permits the state to — sort of — keep the voter honest. But, in a sense, that’s not the state’s business. It’s the citizen’s business to keep the government honest, not the other way around.

I tell you THAT to tell you THIS:

Apparently, it’s becoming clear that police agencies are abusing state driver’s license photo databases, degrading personal privacy and anonymity.

So, here’s the story challenge. Imagine a regime or protocol which can tie these three things together and find a story in it.

As before, the first writer to publication (ebook on Amazon will do) wins a No-Prize.

4 responses to “Story Starter

  1. …These are specialized EEGs taken while the subject is watching a prepared video or slide show of particular objects.

    How does this system compensate for traumatic changes in a persons life? Fire, rape, assault, ect. I would think they would substantially alter a persons responses to video.

  2. Mark Philip Alger

    I’m not competent to say. Not enough knowledge. The way Schneier laid the system out, a person who showed “off” responses would be flagged for further attention — that’s all. The final determination to be made by trained interrogators a la El Al.

    M

  3. I have a guess about how these EEGs might work. When you’re shown an image of something or someone you recognize, your brain emits a distinctive “ping” that can reliably be detected by EEG (supposedly). For example, if I showed you a photo of your childhood bedroom or the sandlot where you played baseball as a kid or the pond where you used to fish, or a picture of your first girlfriend, etc, in each case an EEG could detect the fact that you recognized these things/people. This is an involuntary response that is not under conscious control, so you cannot fake non-recognition–or recognition.

    Let’s say some authority wants to establish a person’s “trustworthiness” for air travel and thus wishes to identify potential terrorists. They create a large collection of photos of things that only terrorists/hijackers are apt to know of. For example, pictures of weaponry or other tools of the trade, training camps/methods, obscure publications widely circulated among such people, popular slogans, images or icons (possibly written in non-English characters and found only in extremist publications or websites), pictures of inspirational radicals commonly known by terrorists (but not otherwise famous), etc.

    The person is hooked up to the EEG and shown a “line-up” of photos including the ones mentioned above. If the EEG detects that the person recognizes a lot of terrorist-related photos, that is a strong indication the person is either a terrorist or has a lot of interest in, and association with, terrorist-related activities. Although this doesn’t conclusively prove anything, it is strong evidence that the person should receive a low “trustworthiness” score and therefore be subjected to further scrutiny.

    • Mark Philip Alger

      I’m sorry, Man. I could have saved you a lot of trouble by telling you the name of the process is what Schneier called (inaccurately, BTW — the inventor HATES the term) a Farwell Brain Scan, developed by Lawrence Farwell.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brain%E2%80%93computer_interface#Overview

      For the purposes of SF, the device could be handwavium. The point (as I see it) is the social and political developments. But… whatever.