Hidden government scanners could soon analyze your every molecule

Filed Under: Law & order, Privacy

Possibly as early as 2013, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will be able to beam a laser at us from 164 feet (50 meters) away, analyzing the molecules of our bodies, our clothes, our luggage, whatever meal we're digesting inside our guts, whatever gun powder residue might have clung to terrorists, whatever drugs are floating around in our urine or glommed onto the soles of our shoes, and how nervous we might be according to our adrenaline levels, all without patdowns or having to touch us at all, without us even knowing it's happening.

Human body, courtesy of ShutterstockThe news comes from a researcher who chooses to remain anonymous.

He's currently completing his PhD in renewable energy solutions and published the news of this impending death of privacy on Gizmodo.

Regardless of his anonymity, the researcher backs up the premise with publicly available information.

For one thing, in November 2011, the technology's inventors were subcontracted by In-Q-Tel, an organization that defines itself as a bridge between the CIA and new technology companies, to work with DHS.

In-Q-Tel describes the technology as a "synchronized programmable laser" for use in the biomedical, industrial and defense and security communities.

The anonymous researcher writes that DHS plans to install this molecular-level scanning in airports and border crossings across the US.

The "official, stated goal" is to quickly identify explosives, dangerous chemicals, or bioweapons at a distance, he writes, and will likely be used to scan absolutely anybody and everybody:

The machine is ten million times faster—and one million times more sensitive—than any currently available system. That means that it can be used systematically on everyone passing through airport security, not just suspect or randomly sampled people.

The technology isn't new: it's just "millions times faster and more convenient than ever before," the researcher writes.

In 2008, a team at George Washington University introduced a new detector that combined a laser with a mass spectrometer to provide on-the-spot analysis to be used in applications such as evaluating a tumor as it's removed or quickly detecting explosives in luggage.

That early version of what's known as laser ablation electrospray ionization (LAESI) relied on a laser that vaporizes and instantly analyzes tiny samples, even from living organisms.

The system has been used to:

  • Find drug samples in urine,
  • Detect chemical changes that accompany color changes in living plant tissue, and
  • Find explosives residue on dollar bills.

In-Q-Tel logoWill DHS constrain the technology to airports and border crossings, or will it be introduced in subways, traffic lights, sporting events, police cruisers and, well, everywhere, as the researcher suggests?

He quotes In-Q-Tel's corporate thoughts on the subject:

...the entire synchronized laser system is comprised in a single, robust and alignment-free unit that may be easily transported for use in many environments… This compact and robust laser has the ability to rapidly sweep wavelengths in any pattern and sequence. [PDF]

In other words, whoever controls this technology will be able to scan everyone, everywhere.

Privacy?

Ha ha ha ha ha!

What a quaint notion.

There has been no talk of what molecular analysis the technology will be constrained to, if in fact there are any constraints, nor how privacy rights would be affected, at least not that the researcher has detected.

I didn't come across anything when I searched, either, though I did come across a video describing how LAESI lasers basically burn teensy bits of us and our accoutrements, ionizing us and our luggage for convenient analysis.

What are we supposed to write about with regards to privacy after this technology gets rolled out? That the word will earn you 17 points in Scrabble?

Airport queue cartoon and human body image, courtesy of Shutterstock.

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25 Responses to Hidden government scanners could soon analyze your every molecule

  1. Anne · 748 days ago

    The word is nonexistent and is actually 18 points according to the scrabble link

  2. EchoVector · 748 days ago

    The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

    Sigh. The zombies, brainwashed and the sheeple have given away damn near everything that millions on millions of brave men and women fought and died to save and protect.

    What a damned waste.

  3. Bill Nye · 748 days ago

    I hope this article was posted as a joke. This technology simply cannot work the way it describes unless you only want to scan surface articles and only those that contain waer molecules....as in most weapons, other than a fully armed banana, would never be detected by this. Seriously, is it 1APR again and I missed it?

  4. Terry · 748 days ago

    The solution? Simple. Subject the laser scanner to a democracy scanner, i.e. a referendum, on a regular basis. It's democracy, stupid. Anything else is dictatorship - and dictatorship, dictats and dictators are subject to physical overthrow by we, the people. Sorted.

    • libertylvr · 748 days ago

      Agree with the sentiment, but it's a republic--not a democracy. The founders specifically avoided democracy. But I understand your confusion, because we are being taught we live in a democracy or democratic republic--simply not true. When asked what form of government the founders had agreed upon, Benjamin Franklin said, "A republic, if you can keep it!"

  5. Gerry · 748 days ago

    And where is the Z Backscatter system now that quickly went underground somewhere in 2007?

  6. Randy · 748 days ago

    It's a hoax.
    "(LAESI) relied on a laser that vaporizes and instantly analyzes tiny samples, even from living organisms."
    Laser is light, nothing else. It's only function in this case is to vaporize a material so the material's spectrum emissions can be analyzed and compared to other known substances.
    Detect molecular characteristics at 164 feet? Nope. As soon as a laser hits the person's clothing it stops. Only a higher powered laser could go through a person's clothing and strike something beneath it, vaporize it and analyze the spectral emissions. By then the clothing would be charred and burnt.
    Do I even need to go into the damage such a laser could do to the human eye, even at a lower power setting? I suppose vaporizing airline passengers and seeing posthumously whether or not they may have been a threat would reduce the possibility of a hijacking to zero but I doubt the airlines or even Homeland Security would go along with it. Well, definitely the airlines.

  7. Whatever · 748 days ago

    Bummer! So now I can't cop a buzz befor I fly.Guess I'll drive then.

  8. Anon · 748 days ago

    "how did you get those molecules sir?"

    You could have some fun with this, a baloon filled with trace amounts of a controleld substance that hits everybody in the queue could cause chaos in false detections.

  9. Ben · 748 days ago

    I'm pushing 70 years old and I'm retired. That means I can minimize my interaction with others. When I was younger I "served my country" in a far away land somewheres in Southeast Asia. All in the name of democracy and fighting those evil, commie basta*ds. Then I spent the majority of my adult working life as cop. Again in the name of democracy and to "protect and serve" the people of my community from those evil, criminal basta*ds. Looks like we've come full circle. The only evil, commie basta*ds and criminal basta*ds I see these days are in government office. In a way, I'm kinda glad my life is almost over. I fear the kind of life children born today will have to deal with. George Orwell, anyone?

  10. Steve H · 748 days ago

    As others have stated, this isn't possible the way it's described. Maybe there's something else going on, but a mass spec has to have the molecules injected into it, so this cannot function at all the way described. Maybe they have something else that can detect materials at a distance, but the way this is described, it's not possible.

  11. KjC · 748 days ago

    @Ben. I agree with you 100%. I'm 57 but I remember what America used to be and this aint it! Whenever my younger friends get pregnant, I have to pretend I'm overjoyed. I'm happy for the couple and pensive for the child. So sad it has come to this.

  12. Roscoe · 748 days ago

    If not true, I'm surprised Sophos would even entertain this idea... except with sarcasm.

    If true, very scary indeed.

    Either way the conspirists will have a field day with this article.

  13. Lord Mcnibbles · 748 days ago

    Seems pretty pointless to me.

    If I were the nefarious type and wanted to avoid security, wouldn't I simply avoid airports and border crossings? I mean, there's million of miles of coastline around the US and unless they're willing to install a dirty great laser around the entire continent they're not going to stop 'bad guys' getting in.

    More to the point, there's million of firearms inside the US already. Why not simply pick up one of those before going postal?

    Seems like the only people who will be affected by this will be the general public.

  14. Tony · 748 days ago

    How I prepared for my summer vacation and ended up in an interrogation room instead.

    In preparing for my holiday I change the battery in my smoke detector getting radioactive americium-241 isotopes on my hands, I fertilize and water my plants adding potassium nitrate to my hands. On my way out I stop at the gas station and pay for my gas with a $50.00 bill adding cocaine residue to the mixture. That evening I attend an open air concert where marijuana smoke residue attaches to my clothing.

    I then shuffle off to the airport to catch a flight to begin my long overdue holiday vacation

    .

    Shortly before boarding that flight I can assume that 24 SWAT trained AR-15 carrying policemen are going to tackle me because I set off every alarm known. Talk about excitement.

  15. Vito · 748 days ago

    Forget the Constitution. It has failed. The very subject of the article is proof enough of that.

    This is the essence of the American Revolution:

    "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed... But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security."

    Get it? The revolutionary concept -- the idea that the government serves the people, not the other way around -- is in the Declaration, NOT the U.S. Constitution. The latter document is the device through which, by degrees, everything the Declaration stands for has been gradually subverted by a more subtle form of coercion...namely political fraud masquerading as “democracy”.

    The Republic was a noble but ill-fated attempt to preclude the tyranny of the majority over the minority, but it has failed. The Constitution is the instrument of that failure. Except for its first ten amendments (aka "The Bill of Rights”), it has effectively undermined the entire spirit of the Declaration quoted above by replacing one hereditary king with a multitude of elected kinglets, and one Grand Fromage in the White House.

    That's why we're in trouble. Using the Constitution as the litmus test of whether our freedoms are being violated is how we got into this mess in the first place. By giving the power to limit or entirely suspend our freedoms and our privacy to the state, the Constitution has stomped the Declaration into the dirt.

  16. John Smith · 748 days ago

    @ Bill Nye ( the Science Guy) I agree with you. Lisa Vaas , you should have run this by a real scientist, before accepting the anonomous informants statements as real, I really like Sophos , but this really hurts Sophos credibility! If you had looked at the video you posted, you would have seen a stationary device that is good in a lab setting for detecting cancer in tumors or disease in plants but little else. A laser powerful enough to scan a person from the distance you specified would burn skin off , not vaporize it painlessly. The intensity of the laser would blind anyone whose eyes it crossed

  17. Communist Socialist · 748 days ago

    Some increase funding for STEM courses for the masses please. Just because it's in an "article" doesn't make it true. Please understand how things (e.g. physics) work before posting this drivel.

  18. John S. · 748 days ago

    To Lisa, I am a big fan of Sophos, and all the good that you all do for the cyber community, having said that, I am very dissapointed that you wrote this article. It is nothing but a rehash of the Gizmodo article that I have read. And due to the "anonymous" nature of their source, and your lack of scientific verification of their claims, this is nothing more than time wasting speculation. I have reread their article several times and I note that they string together several ideas without filling in the blanks, because either the technology is not there, or they are just making it up as they go along. They talk about laser range, but not How it gets there; they talk of molecular scanning of lab samples, but not of scanning a moving bilogic, they talk of scanning " what you had for breakfast" with out considering that unless you either belch or pass gas while passing thru "the hallway'" your internal stomach contents are sealed inside your digestive tract. If you cannot verify the science, dont repeat the story.

  19. Scribbling Patriot · 748 days ago

    Unless you have been on another planet the last 20 years you should already know the US Gov. is taking away our freedoms in the name of security, knowing that we will soon have neither. So what do we do? You cannot advocate armed rebellion without being jailed or killed. You cannot vote the Democrats and Republicans out because they control the elections and the media. So somebody please tell me, what do we do?

  20. Mark · 747 days ago

    "I didn't come across anything when I searched"

    so don't publish unsubstantiated rumours!

  21. Dustin · 746 days ago

    Uhm, gunpowder residue clings to me. Am I a terrorist?

  22. Sootie · 746 days ago

    If it means I can rock up to a flight 10 min before it takes off rather than 2 hours and not get stuck in a line for 2 hours to be searched and questioned then I'm all for it. I have nothing to hide anyway

  23. George Butel · 733 days ago

    I can see that the Thorazine shortage is acute here. To think that you could aim a laser at someone walking down the street and see into that person's bladder or into that person's dollar bills in his or her wallet is ludicrous. Yes, the technology is interesting, intrusive--and necessary. It can detect things on the outside of the person, but this is not the "end" of privacy. If you don't like it, don't go to the airport, or wherever it might be used. There's no law forcing you to fly.

  24. Naomi Pattirane · 460 days ago

    Why is this technology not being used for life saving medical purposes, such as a replacement diagnostic method for dangerous lumbar puncture spinal taps or to detect drug rape substances such as scopolamine which are almost impossible to detect by normal methods? It seems that the most useful new technologies are patented for use by the police state long before they are used to actually benefit humanity.

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.