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.
The 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.
Will 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.
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?Follow @LisaVaas