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Government Privacy Hardware Technology

The DHS's Latest Investment: Terahertz Laser Scanners 169

Posted by Soulskill
from the can-we-shoot-you-with-this-laser-to-uhhhh-scan-you? dept.
MrSeb writes "It seems like every time I set foot in an airport, there is some new machine I need to stand in, walk through, or put my shoes on. The argument can be made that much of this is security theater — an effort to just make things look safe. However, if a new kind of laser-based molecular scanner lives up to its promise and finds its way into airports as planned, it could actually make a difference. A company called Genia Photonics has developed a programmable picosecond laser that is capable of spotting trace amounts of a variety of substances. Genia claims that the system can detect explosives, chemical agents, and hazardous biological substances at up to 50 meters. This device relies on classic spectroscopy; just a very advanced form of it. In the case of Genia's scanner, it is using far-infrared radiation in the terahertz band. This is why the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is so keen on getting it into airports. Understandably, some are calling foul on the possible privacy concerns, but this technology is halfway to a Star Trek tricorder."
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The DHS's Latest Investment: Terahertz Laser Scanners

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  • Oops (Score:5, Funny)

    by war4peace (1628283) on Wednesday July 11, 2012 @04:05PM (#40619261)

    I should then quit smoking doobies prior to traveling. Bummer.

    • Re:Oops (Score:5, Funny)

      by jimpop (27817) * on Wednesday July 11, 2012 @04:07PM (#40619305) Homepage Journal

      possibly before posting too! :-)

    • Re:Oops (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Jeremiah Cornelius (137) on Wednesday July 11, 2012 @04:14PM (#40619407) Homepage Journal

      Invasive scanning without detection at 50 meters?
      "Backscatter" vans are already roaming the streets of Amereica's cities. So I don't suppose that many months will pass before DHS has this equipment deployed into the hands of "local jurisdiction associates" sooner than later. Hell, they'll probably deploy this on drones, if they can manage the power-supply.

      Then? They'll have your arse scanned and tanned before you are in earshot of the announcement: "papers, please!"

      Good to know that there are Americans volunteering to die overseas, in the defense of such Liberty as this!

      • Invasive scanning without detection at 50 meters?

        they'll probably deploy this on drones, if they can manage the power-supply.

        Holy shit, look at that drone skimming the tree tops!

      • If you follow NASA's Tech Briefs, in Vol. 36 No. 7, there are a numerous of articles in there about Terahertz lasers to doing neat things in much reduced package sizes and at a reduced price, all things considered though this is NASA I am talking about. Many prior assumptions about range, size, power, and cost are going out the window so drone mounting is not just conceivable, I'd rate it extremely likely. A random thought about capabilities is that the spectroscopy device, which sure as hell doesn't need

      • by h4rr4r (612664) on Wednesday July 11, 2012 @04:40PM (#40619827)

        So he walked over some?

        I think the potheads would love this. They will start dumping shake at the entrence of the airport.

        • Hmm. Terahertz-triggers for explosives.

          • by GodInHell (258915)
            Better down there than on the plane.

            Too bad the Bomb Box concept is just a fantasy -- that would be the best method, a twisting path that has one or more areas which are reinforced and designed to direct a blast upward and out of an airport building while restricting access to minimize the number of passengers that could enter the chamber at one time -- in there you run some fantasy machine that automagically explodes explosive material. Warning: do not carry nitroglycerin pills onto airplanes anymore :
            • Hmm. Nitroglycerin pills with a stabilizer...that might work. 30 count. Just add heat.

              However, we are dancing around the real issue here. None of us are particularly suicidal (with the exception of those people trying to earn a living doing OSS support), and outside of the Linux / Windows / Mac holy wars, none of us are homicidal. Life may not be what we were promised, but it hasn't yet, hit the level where people with the patience of the Buddha (have you done tech support? have you recompiled the linux ker

      • Well, safer for the police anyway...
      • I would not have believed the story. That is outrageous. Even more incredible was the guy serving hard time for having a poppy seed (well, three poppy seeds) stuck to his shirt. This, after consuming a bread roll at Heathrow. It defies all common sense. What a bunch of totally random bullies. Where is Franz Kafka [wikipedia.org] when you need him.

        I once went to Dubai. It was a pleasant enough hotel-land experience -- expensive. But after reading that piece in The Daily Mail I will never return. I was put off the place any

    • If you eat enough Doritos before traveling, the laser will only detect cool ranch flavor.
  • Sounds good. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Animats (122034) on Wednesday July 11, 2012 @04:09PM (#40619335) Homepage

    This sounds good. A device that can detect explosive compounds at a distance. That addresses the real problem. No more need to examine laptops, check documents, or pat people down.

    • Re:Sounds good. (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Hatta (162192) on Wednesday July 11, 2012 @04:25PM (#40619593) Journal

      You're not naive enough to think that they'll stop, just because the original justification is no longer valid, are you?

    • by JohnFen (1641097)

      That enhances the real problem.

      FTFY.

      • No, I think he was right... if they have a way to check for that kind of thing without letting a high-school dropout look at naked pictures of me, then I'm good with it.

        The problem is, they've had a way to do that for decades... drug/bomb dogs have a *much* higher success rate than any technological innovation that's been introduced since, with the possible exception of the metal detector. Couple the two together, and you have a solution that's much cheaper than the current theatre, and much more effective.

    • by barlevg (2111272)
      But will they really stop patting people down?

      First the legitimate: these things don't exactly have any mechanism by which to detect box cutters.

      Now the bureaucratic: as the summary states, much of airport security is pure theater. People aren't as likely to feel safe if they're only being screened by "magic laser scanners."
      • by Anonymous Coward

        First point is not actually legitimate, as the security loophole that allowed 9/11 to happen was closed before 9/11 was even completed.

        • by icebike (68054) *

          Not to mention US passengers will take down and hog tie anybody who even mutters the word box cutter.

      • by Znork (31774)

        Of course not. But most likely they will mainly be used to detect what taxpayers carry any residue of money, at which point they'll get a 'pat down' to remove any excess cash burdening the traveller.

        Time to cut out the middle man; these machines are expensive and the producers have to be paid.

        • Of course not. But most likely they will mainly be used to detect what taxpayers carry any residue of money, at which point they'll get a 'pat down' to remove any excess cash burdening the traveller.

          Time to cut out the middle man; these machines are expensive and the producers have to be paid.

          This isn't too far off... if this thing is used to detect narcotics, given that 90% of US bills have detectable traces of cocaine on them [nationalgeographic.com], leave any money exposed while being scanned, and you're likely to get a much more thorough examination and possible confiscation of your money.

    • Re:Sounds good. (Score:4, Insightful)

      by dgatwood (11270) on Wednesday July 11, 2012 @04:32PM (#40619717) Journal

      The paranoid part of me would point out that it can also detect various medical conditions at a distance. That's not necessarily a bad thing to find out about if you don't know you have cancer or whatever, but it has all sorts of ramifications, and falls under HIPAA....

      That said, as long as it is not physically capable of producing a coherent image, it is significantly less invasive than the pedo porno scanners they use today, and really isn't that much different from the magnetometers except in the number of materials it can detect. I would view these as a significant improvement if these are physically incapable (because of hardware limitations, not software policies) of producing anything approaching an image.

      If they can produce anything remotely approaching an image, then they are far worse than the porno scanners and should be banned. There's no valid reason for the device to be able to determine distance or even determine which direction the laser is pointing at any given moment if your only goal is to detect dangerous substances by their chemical signature.

      I'm cautiously optimistic, yet very pessimistic all at once. On the one hand, this might be a significant improvement in privacy when going through an airport checkpoint. On the other hand this might significantly reduce privacy all the time, and knowing the DHS, if there is a way for them to screw things up so that they invade privacy more than necessary, they will find a way to do so. So the cynic in me says that this will probably turn out to be another few billion dollars of our money pissed down the toilet that should be spent on something more useful, like education, intelligence gathering, actual useful security changes, providing universal healthcare, feeding and clothing the poor, building highways, updating rail beds for high speed trains, or even just burning the cash for warmth....

    • Re:Sounds good. (Score:4, Informative)

      by whitedsepdivine (1491991) on Wednesday July 11, 2012 @04:34PM (#40619747)
      The real problem is the false positives of explosives. Laundry detergent and makeup can actually give a false positive.

      Additionally, explosive residue shouldn't signify guilt. If I have gun powder residue on my shirt, does that make me a terrorist? No. I could have gone hunting, or even brushed against a police officer.

      Explosives Molecules != Terrorist

      But with the TSA it means you will be getting advanced grope down, and will miss your flight. Even if you pass your groping procedure, they may still contact the airlines and see if the airline will deny you.
      • Re:Sounds good. (Score:5, Insightful)

        by what2123 (1116571) on Wednesday July 11, 2012 @04:50PM (#40619957)
        Glad someone was thinking the same thing. I shoot guns, and play with model rockets quite a bit (don't tell the DHS though). If it has the ability to detect at the level they are stating, then there will be many false positives. How will they know what the "zero" is on the scale?
      • by MikeMo (521697)
        You have no idea if this laser backscatter machine gives false positives.
        • You have no idea if this laser backscatter machine gives false positives.

          No idea? I'd say that given standard statistical distributions, the machine is GUARANTEED to give false positives, unless it doesn't give any positives at all. Given that we live in a universe filled with entropy and this is a fairly advanced device, a 0 FP rate indicates an unacceptably high FN rate.

          So the real question is to do with process and granularity of information provided, not FP rate.

          • by MikeMo (521697)
            I say again, you are purely assuming, with no actual FACTS, that the machine will give false positives on "laundry detergent and makeup". While I agree that it is likely to give false positives, the rate at which it does so and the substances which cause it are unknown to those of us on slashdot. My point is that one should not be all upset about false positives until such time that real FACTS about them are available. Once can be concerned that there may be false positives, but one should not state cate
            • by geekoid (135745)

              FACT: there will be false positive.

              The question you seem to be getting overly concerned about it "What happens when that occurs?"

            • by julesh (229690)

              I say again, you are purely assuming, with no actual FACTS, that the machine will give false positives on "laundry detergent and makeup". While I agree that it is likely to give false positives, the rate at which it does so and the substances which cause it are unknown to those of us on slashdot. My point is that one should not be all upset about false positives until such time that real FACTS about them are available. Once can be concerned that there may be false positives, but one should not state categorically that "Laundry detergent and makeup can actually give a false positive" without those actual FACTS.

              Ok, here's a fact for you. I don't knw what the problem with laundry detergent is, but a rather large number of cosmetic items (mostly nail varnishes) are produced from nitrocellulose, a high explosive. It is physically impossible to detect molecules of nitrocellulose from an explosive device without also detecting the ones that are used in nail varnish (and the lacquer on many guitars, and in wart removers, and in the plastic backing on some brands of playing cards). If it is sensitive enough to be usef

      • by Bucky24 (1943328)
        If you brushed against a police officer you may need to be taken in for questioning for "resisting arrest"
      • Long before 9/11, i went with a friend and his father to pick up a family member of his at the airport. This was back when anyone--not just ticketed passengers--could go through security, all the way to the gate. my friend's dad was carrying a messenger bag type satchel that he got at a military surplus store. For some reason, it triggered some alarm or the other, or maybe he was just picked randomly, but the bag he had was putting off a chemical signature of TNT explosives, and he was given the option to l
    • I work with people that handle explosives and travel a lot. Various sensors beep when they go into airports. At that point they are asked "do you work in a mine", and if they say yes there are no furthur questions, searches or requirements to provide paperwork.
      It wouldn't take a paticularly smart terrorist to talk their way onto a plane at this point even if the sensors are very accurate.
  • Except for... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by strangeattraction (1058568) on Wednesday July 11, 2012 @04:11PM (#40619369)
    Go and work in your garden with fertilizer and get some on your shoes or hat. Maybe your person. Next take a trip to your lovely TSA scanner and see if they let you on the plane:) The problem is the molecules they scan for are all over the place. There would be far more false positives than they would be willing to handle. If I remember correctly they where testing for nitriles by wiping with a cloth. So many people tested positive they finally gave up. Of course they have probably forgotten about that.
    • How is this a problem? If the device detects explosives then you are taken to a secondary more "personal" search. I doubt that the false positive rate would be that high that it would be undoable... after all, the TSA is basically doing a 100% search rate as is.

      • Re:Except for... (Score:5, Insightful)

        by John Hasler (414242) on Wednesday July 11, 2012 @04:42PM (#40619853) Homepage

        > How is this a problem? If the device detects explosives then
        > you are taken to a secondary more "personal" search.

        How is that not a problem?

        • > How is this a problem? If the device detects explosives then
          > you are taken to a secondary more "personal" search.

          How is that not a problem?

          How is it not an improvement?

          We'd be fools to reject progress even while still fighting to have the problem corrected entirely.

      • by h4rr4r (612664)

        It will be when some jerk/terrorist/bored teenagers decide to just mix fertilizer/gun powder with water and dump some on the floor at the airport.

        Talk about impact per dollar spent. If you had to search every passenger many flights would be canceled or delayed and doing that at one major airport would impact the whole country, do it at Heathrow or O'Hare and you might be able to delay flights and disrupt travel for the people all over the world.

  • Ridiculous (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Mathias616 (2612957) on Wednesday July 11, 2012 @04:14PM (#40619417)
    Good luck getting through an airport if your job has you work with chemicals, explosives, etc. I hear a lot of EOD tech's in the military often complain about the difficulty they have getting through an airport because of residual traces of explosives being detected by dogs. If this technology is as accurate as it is made out to be then nobody could travel the week of July 4th because they are all terrorists hiding explosives in their rectum's. Break out the gloves and strip search that 11 year old in front of their parents! Seriously, the TSA and DHS need to be abolished, this sensationalist security crap is not doing anything but harassing everyday people and systematically making our country into a police state.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by sabri (584428) *
      In that case, you can/should be able to be pre-screened by the TSA. They already have something in place for people with names that are similar to names on the no-fly list

      If you work with explosives/chemicals, all you (would) need is a redress number and perhaps a pre-screen and you're done.

      I agree with you that the current TSA system is not the best, but it beats the alternative (i.e., letting everyone on an airplane without any checks).
      • Re:Ridiculous (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday July 11, 2012 @04:24PM (#40619583)

        >it beats the alternative (i.e., letting everyone on an airplane without any checks).
        [citation needed]

        Never mind our entirely sufficient airline security pre 9/11 did only minimal checks. Every now and then a bunch of wackos blow up a plane. Big deal. Heart disease and traffic accidents do far, far worse.

        So sometimes they get one through. No reason to live in constant fear and surrender all freedoms in a *futile* attempt to stop terrorists. I'm not saying don't put people through a metal detector or x-ray baggage or anything but this current crap is ridiculous.

        • Re:Ridiculous (Score:4, Insightful)

          by nschubach (922175) on Wednesday July 11, 2012 @04:37PM (#40619773) Journal

          Not to mention, if a terrorist really wanted to fly a plane into something else... they could just do it on a private jet which has no TSA screening. Heck, even a small craft (unmanned anymore) loaded with explosives could take off from any number of airports in the US and cause a tremendous amount of damage.

          • by hoggoth (414195) on Wednesday July 11, 2012 @06:11PM (#40621491) Journal

            For fuck's sake, anyone who's read Make magazine could make an unmanned explosive drone by buying a quadropter from Brookstone and duct taping a bomb to it.
            Take off from a backyard.

            Technology will not be getting any harder in the future, folks.

            The TSA: Keeping us safe from yesterday's threat, today.

            • by geekoid (135745)

              except they don't work that way. Big and public. Shut down the means of transportation.

              I doubt anyone who read make can make a missile that could find and hit a plane in flight.

              I would love to see someone get a brookstone quadcopter manege to hit a plane traveling at 100's of miles an hour. Or even one with enough lift to get enough explosives off the ground.

            • by julesh (229690)

              There's an amateur technologist in NZ who made his own pulsejet powered GPS-guided cruise missiles. The technology isn't hard, and I'm constantly amazed no terrorist group has yet replicated it.

          • by aaarrrgggh (9205)

            Not to mention the fact that if a terrorist really wanted to do something bad, all they need to do is bribe or hold someone with adequate clearance's family hostage.

            The reality is that a significantly motivated person/organization can easily defeat any obstacles placed in front of them. It becomes an economic issue. If security costs $1MM, and can be defeated for $1k (including risk, human cost, etc), the security doesn't work. If the security costs $1k and requires $1MM to be defeated, it works. It is

            • by geekoid (135745)

              Right now we have an airport security apparatus that costs well over $1B more than the pre-9/11 costs.

              It is not statistically/demonstrably safer than the pre 9/11 security.
              Actually it is.

              9/11 total cost was under $1MM to orchestrate... likely under $100k!

              So what? destruction is cheap, always has been.
              Most burglars spend exact zero dollar in tolls to orchestrate a break in. Does this mean you should spend money trying to prevent break ins?

              "There is no such thing as perfect safety, perfect security, or perfec

              • Actually, the costs without the wars has been over $1 trillion. If it were a billion, it wouldn't really be that much in the scheme of things, as it would be around $100 million per year since then.

                What was the damage brought on by 9/11? Billions, and maybe even tens of billions. It was a lot of money, but did it justify a trillion dollars in spending? I tend to think that's a bit much. Lock the cockpit doors--that cost a few hundred million. Prevent non-passengers from going to the gate--that might h

      • by JohnFen (1641097)

        That's a false dichotomy -- there are other options. But even if our choice is between doing nothing and doing what they do now, I would argue that doing nothing is the better alternative. By a long shot.

        • by geekoid (135745)

          Give me some arguments no how letting people on without any screening is a better alternative.

          Be sure to account for the aircraft bombing and hijacking that took place prior to screenings.

          • by JohnFen (1641097)

            The current security procedures carry a heavy cost (not talking just dollars, but including loss of privacy, strengthening of authoritarianism, reduced efficiency, etc.). I argue that this cost is much higher than the cost of things like hijackings, terrorist acts, etc.

            Even if all known planned terrorist plots were successful, the cost of that, counting people killed & maimed as well as property damage, would still be many orders of magnitude lower than the cost of allowing people to drive. We've collec

      • by G00F (241765)
        <quote>I agree with you that the current TSA system is not the best, but it beats the alternative (i.e., letting everyone on an airplane without any checks).</quote>

        The alternative was the screening in place pre 911, which was not "letting everyone on an airplane without any checks". They checked for explosives on random people, they had everyone go through metal detectors and might esculate to the wand. They allowed secure private checked in bags, and they looked through carry ons. But I stro
      • by chrismcb (983081)

        I agree with you that the current TSA system is not the best, but it beats the alternative (i.e., letting everyone on an airplane without any checks).

        What is wrong with the alternative?
        Why do we need the TSA or "security"?

    • > Seriously, the TSA and DHS need to be abolished,

      Damn right.

    • If this technology is as accurate as it is made out to be ....

      Accuracy and sensitivity aren't the same thing. Maybe the detector isn't a binary detector (bad stuff detected vs clean) but instead gives a level reading for a number of compounds? If the level reading hits a certain level of a certain combination of chemicals, it gets flagged?

      That's how I'd set such a thing up. Of course, this doesn't stop security from detecting at the lowest level, but since this is theatre in the first place, they'd most likely calibrate the device to a level that gives them precise

    • by T Murphy (1054674)

      then nobody could travel the week of July 4th because they are all terrorists hiding explosives in their rectum's. Break out the gloves and strip search that 11 year old in front of their parents!

      [...]

      this sensationalist security crap

      Good thing I'm not going through airport security right now, I think my irony meter just exploded!

  • by decipher_saint (72686) on Wednesday July 11, 2012 @04:15PM (#40619429) Homepage

    Poppyseed muffin sales have dropped to all time lows in the airport concourse. Terrorists suspected...

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Once they finally deploy something like this that's invasive enough to spot all the dangerous molecules, they're going to be overwhelmed with false positives. The scanner will be right, but no terrorism or risk will be in play. Do these people have any idea how much trace levels of "dangerous" molecules you'd actually find if you did a broad long distance sweep of a whole airport terminal and everyone in it? Chem traces from cleaning your kitchen or working on car/garage products can look the same as tra

  • Make a difference? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by digitallife (805599) on Wednesday July 11, 2012 @04:19PM (#40619495)

    "it could actually make a difference"
    I'm sorry, what? What kind of difference do you expect it to make?
    Terrorist attacks on planes are EXTREMELY rare. I do not lose sleep over them. You and I are far, far more likely to die from a plane malfunction or pilot error than a terrorist. The only 'difference' I can see is yet another hoop to jump through at airports.

  • but this technology is halfway to a Star Trek tricorder

    he's dead Jim

  • from the Ministry of Housinge? It could pin point a purr from 400 yards away!
  • And of course each laser will come packaged with a shark on which to mount it, thus further enhancing the airport security!

  • All this security and I was still able to bring a Swiss Army Knife [swissarmy.com] and a magnesium campfire starter [coghlans.com] in my carry-on luggage on a flight into the States recently.
    • by geekoid (135745)

      Alls that proves is that it's not as bad as people on /. seem to think it is.
      Which implies /. derives tis opinion from sensational headlines and shaky summaries

  • This will just be another drug hunting gadget that won't even encounter a terrorist
  • Um... Aren't you suppose to wear safety goggles around lasers? Geesh... Take off your coat and shoes, put on these goggles, stand over there with arms and legs spread, turn and cough. Hmm... Something beeped; must pat you down too... Just frelling strip-search me already. If the TSA/DHS could throw in a breast / prostate exam during the search, perhaps it could help with the health care budget too... Preventative care works you know!
    • by cnettel (836611)
      It's all dependent on the power. As the beam is concentrated, a direct beam into the eye can relatively quickly cause permanent damage. However, you can also easily enough disperse the beam a little, or use very low power. I would suppose that the beam is dispersed in an application like this, as you wouldn't want to identify explosives just within a narrow line of sight.
  • by Dan667 (564390) on Wednesday July 11, 2012 @04:47PM (#40619929)
    I bet if there is no profit to be made the tsa would quickly be dissolved.
    • by geekoid (135745)

      No, the private companies would just charge the government more. And more. You know,. cause CEOs need their bonuses.

  • by melted (227442) on Wednesday July 11, 2012 @06:16PM (#40621575) Homepage

    FBI should look into who got the contracts and how decisions to award these contracts were made. Personally, I think this stinks from a mile away, and large bags of money had to change hands to make this happen.

  • I look forward to the searches~

  • " it could actually make a difference. " No it can't. Even if everyone in the security line were stripped naked and had cavity checks, it would STILL be possible to get whatever you want into an airport. The security line isn't the only way into an airport.
    Other than the current level of terror some people seem to have about flying, an airplane isn't the best target for a terrorist. And yet we do almost everything to protect them and nothing to protect what would be the real targets. Like EVERYTHING else.
  • As it works in infrared, which is line of sight, it probably doesn't remove any of the other scanning methods (ie groping) that are in place today.

  • Everyone of us has trace amounts of cocain, explosive residue, and infectious biological agents all over us. This thing should trigger on every person that walks into the airport.

A motion to adjourn is always in order.

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