Reading the face of terrorism

A terrorist makes his way through airport security, blending in easily with thousands of passengers.

But stress, fear and anger cause him to purse his lips and furrow his brow—uncontrollable microexpressions that occur in milliseconds. High-tech cameras capture the facial giveaways, alerting authorities to the intentions of the suspect.

Far-fetched? Maybe not.

A research team at Wright State University is investigating the possibility of recognizing terrorists or other criminals by what they reveal on their faces. The $1.13 million project, which includes $600,000 worth of equipment, is funded by several defense organizations.

“Even if you’re good at hiding your expressions, we’re hoping to uncover your underlying emotional state,” said Julie Skipper, Ph.D., an associate research professor with the Wright State Research Institute who is leading the study.

The effort marries sensing technologies with psychology. The 11-member research team includes experts in psychology, physics and biomedical engineering.

The researchers are using a facial-coding system that tracks 20 different features, most of them associated with the eyes and mouth. The expressions are linked to fear, disgust, anger, surprise and other emotions.

The team is using physio-recording equipment and specialized cameras, including one that generates high-resolution 3-D images of the subjects based on light polarization.

As part of the research, the scientists have taken images of 20 subjects in Dayton and 80 soldiers at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. The team is also thinking of hiring actors to try to fool the cameras.

In addition to facial expressions, the study is investigating thermal features that reveal changes in heart rate and blood pressure.

“People can mask emotions, but it’s very difficult to mask your physiological responses,” Skipper said. “You’re still feeling it. You’re just trying to shut it down facially.”

Tamera Schneider, associate professor of psychology, said the researchers are trying to develop a stress-and-emotions framework that will reveal the complexity of how emotions trigger facial expressions.

For example, the expressions of some terrorists might show they feel justified in what they are doing. Others might express fear because of what they are being ordered to do.

Besides trying to detect terrorists, the research is also looking at how to spot stress among military personnel. For example, it could help signal when operators of unmanned aerial vehicles are becoming overwhelmed by having to control numerous aircraft at the same time.

Despite the technology, there are challenges to using facial expressions to recognize criminals.

For example, people who are simply running late for their plane at the airport might exhibit similar expressions. And sunglasses and beards could mask some facial signatures.

There are also questions about whether the equipment will be able to detect expressions in poor lighting, at great distances or under certain angles.

Doug Petkie, associate professor of physics and electrical engineering, said the idea of recognizing criminal intent through facial expressions springs from the “proverbial lie detector.”

“This is taking that idea a step further mainly because technology has outleaped the science behind what we’re trying to do,” Petkie said. “If we can measure intent, that’s the Holy Grail.”

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