By David Millward
Airline passengers could have their conversations and movements monitored under a European Union project aimed at tackling terrorism.
Brussels is funding research at Reading University aimed at detecting suspicious behaviour on board aircraft.
It uses a combination of cameras, microphones, explosives detectors and a sophisticated computer system which would give a pilot early warning of any danger.
But the work has alarmed civil liberties campaigners who fear the growth of the surveillance state.
At present intelligent CCTV systems which monitor and analyse passenger behaviour using computer software are used in a number of airports across the world, including at Hong Kong and Washington DC. They are designed to pick up unusual or suspicious behaviour, such as a bag being abandoned.
Currently security on airplanes is mainly limited to a CCTV camera located by the cockpit.
But under the new system microphones would be installed and passenger conversations listened to for the first time. Suspect words and phrases would alert a monitoring system.
Simon Davies, director of Privacy International, said: “Audio airline surveillance is the line that must never be crossed in a high security environment. Passengers must already face intolerable intrusions and restrictions on their movements. The day the airlines install hidden microphones on planes is the day that all trust in the airlines is destroyed.”
But the research also alarmed Gus Hosein a lecturer at the London School of Economics. “This is getting out of control. An airplane is not a privacy free zone.”
The Reading team, headed by James Ferryman, have already conducted trials of the camera system on a British Aerospace plane and the computer system on a mock Airbus.
“What we are doing is extending technology which is already used at airports and railway stations and placing it on an aircraft,” Dr Ferryman said.
Cameras dotted around an aircraft would look out for the abnormal, such as several passengers entering a lavatory at the same time or individuals seeming agitated.
One option would be to allocate some seats to passengers whose behaviour has already raised concern at the airport, so they could be monitored on board.
Microphones would eavesdrop 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.
Money for the research has come from the EU Security of Aircraft in the Future European Environment (SAFEE) project. But the aviation industry would be expected to pay for its deployment.
The cost would inevitably be passed on to the passenger, but Dr Ferryman believes they would accept a small charge to thwart a terrorist threat.
“If I had to pay an extra £5 on an airline ticket and it would go towards s system which would make me safer, I would be happy to do it.
Lord West, the government’s security minister, said: “The use of behavioural science offers us a lot of opportunities in countering terrorism and the work going on at Reading will help with this. This sort of technology is an incredibly valuable tool.
“We are encouraging the world of social and behavioural science to share their ideas and expertise with us to do this. Academia and industry may be able to provide invaluable assistance and advice in helping to prevent terrorist attacks.”