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Government Privacy Hardware Technology

The DHS's Latest Investment: Terahertz Laser Scanners 169

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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  • 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.

  • 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.
  • 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!

  • 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: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?

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

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

  • 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?

  • 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?

BLISS is ignorance.