US Homeland Security reportedly set to deploy ultra-sensitive spectrometer

Jul 12, 2012 by Bob Yirka weblog

(Phys.org) -- Online tech magazine, Gizmodo has stirred up a hornet’s nest of paranoid editorials across the globe by printing an article written by an unknown PhD student who claims that the US Homeland Security department is planning to deploy a new kind of scanning device that is so sensitive it will make all other security measures at airports moot; and worse will be able to do so at a distance allowing the process to occur without the knowledge of the person being scanned.

In the piece, the author, designated simply as NAC, says that the device has been developed by a private company called Genia Photonics, which is apparently chock full of physicists and engineers. It’s described as being able to pick up on the presence of mere molecules of suspicious substances (using apparently harmless, terahertz radiation) such as chemical weapons, gunpowder residue or even heightened levels of adrenaline in the bloodstream, all from a distance of up to 50 meters. What’s more it’s really fast, doing its work in picoseconds, and portable, meaning that DHS could set up the scanner at airports, train stations, border crossings or wherever else they believe a possible threat exists.

What appears to worry some though, is the possibility of being mistakenly labeled as a suspect, criminal, terrorist, etc. People encounter many innocuous substances every day that could be construed as dangerous or even illegal. Stepping on a leftover marijuana stub without knowing it, could for example cause such a scanner to go off, as could applying fertilizer to the home garden prior to heading for the airport.

Something else that seems to cause alarm is the fact that the technology behind the device appears to be sound, and in fact has apparently been done before. The difference this time is the speed at which it works; because of that, a single device could conceivably be used to scan every single person passing through an airport’s terminals, which means, that if deployed the days of singling out individuals for extra security measures would be over. If a person goes to an airport, they will be scanned, and most won’t even know it’s happened. The author of the article says an undersecretary at DHS has stated that the scanner will be ready for deployment within one or two years.

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User comments : 31

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holoman
5 / 5 (1) Jul 12, 2012
astrophysicist/cosmologist can tell you more than you care to know about photon spectral atomic species analysis.
Rosser
2.4 / 5 (14) Jul 12, 2012
Do people think they'll be shot immediately if some question is raised? Folks need to get a life! It's a screening tool, for crying out loud. If it finds something it doesn't like, the TSA people will pull you out and ask you to explain. Let's take a collective deep breath and see how this works out before we all go ballistic.
Shootist
3 / 5 (18) Jul 12, 2012
leftover marijuana stub


aka, roach.

Do people think they'll be shot immediately if some question is raised? Folks need to get a life! It's a screening tool, for crying out loud. If it finds something it doesn't like, the TSA people will pull you out and ask you to explain. Let's take a collective deep breath and see how this works out before we all go ballistic.


You sir, are a serf waiting to happen. Just listen to yourself. They've got to you. You're indoctrinated.
Physmet
3.8 / 5 (10) Jul 12, 2012
I like it. We already know we get scanned, and we have to stand through lines to be scanned. I got pulled aside recently because I forgot and brought two soda cans in my carry on. They weren't mean about it - I just took them out and put them in checked luggage. No big deal. I prefer it to being exploded.
Royale
1.5 / 5 (2) Jul 12, 2012
wouldnt it be great to be scanned as we walk in? perhaps while our bags are being checked? then we wouldnt have to wait on another line to get to the terminals. and we don't have to worry about being blown up? win/win IMO.
Claudius
1 / 5 (4) Jul 12, 2012
I like it. We already know we get scanned, and we have to stand through lines to be scanned. I got pulled aside recently because I forgot and brought two soda cans in my carry on. They weren't mean about it - I just took them out and put them in checked luggage. No big deal. I prefer it to being exploded.


The cans wouldn't explode if carried on board, which is pressurized. They WILL explode if put in your checked luggage.

Just so you know.
Claudius
3.5 / 5 (11) Jul 12, 2012

You sir, are a serf waiting to happen. Just listen to yourself. They've got to you. You're indoctrinated.


Aww, come on, don't you know they are doing this for your protection? We should be grateful for them keeping us safe. We actually need more and more of this. We need them to scan us on the streets, so we can be safe. Our cars need to be stopped and searched at random to keep us safe. We need to have cameras installed in our homes to keep us safe. We should have ID chips installed in our bodies to keep us safe. After all, you never know who's out to get you. Homeland Security is your friend. Just like a big brother, looking out for your best interests.
Royale
1 / 5 (2) Jul 12, 2012
The only way to keep us truly safe is to burn any unapproved books. ::read Fahrenheit 451::
A2G
3 / 5 (2) Jul 12, 2012
OF course we should be willing to admit to search without a warrant. Is that not what the constitution is all about. Now if you are agreeing to go through a scanner that is more efficient than current ones, great. But I totally object to allowing the government more ability to search me just because I go to the airport or other public place.

Besides, the real crimes are happening in DC. That is where that total change needs to take place. Those idiots need less power, not more.
Simonsez
4 / 5 (2) Jul 12, 2012
Soda cans will not explode in your checked luggage. I bring them all the time. Well, not soda - drank brand anti-energy drink for the trip back home.

What worries me about the description of the device is not the obvious telltale chemical/bio weapons particles that get picked up, but this:

able to pick up on ... even heightened levels of adrenaline in the bloodstream, all from a distance of up to 50 meters

Adrenaline in the bloodstream? Are you freaking kidding me? All the people who a) get nervous about air travel, b) in large crowds, c) just ran through the airport because they're late, etc. will show up for heightened adrenaline, not just drug users or anxious malcontents. Ridiculous.
Claudius
1 / 5 (3) Jul 12, 2012
Soda cans will not explode in your checked luggage. I bring them all the time. Well, not soda - drank brand anti-energy drink for the trip back home.


How high are you flying? If at 30,000 feet or more, what is the temperature in the cargo hold? What is the pressure?

Back in the pre-Homeland Security days I had hair conditioner and shampoo bottles explode in my checked baggage. Try putting a soda can in your freezer for a few hours and see what happens.

If I were you, I would be careful about putting anything containing fluid in your checked baggage. Unless nowadays they are pressurizing and temperature controlling the cargo holds.
dogbert
not rated yet Jul 12, 2012
I refuse to go through the scanners. Now you are saying that we will be forcibly scanned in airports, on the streets, etc.?

Is there no end to government assault on its citizens?
PoppaJ
3.7 / 5 (3) Jul 12, 2012
I prefer to not be scanned. If we kept our noses out of other countries business we would not get bombed, and therefore not need to be scanned. If we are going to continue to mess with them, we have to be willing to give up our freedoms. I chose to take the risk of dying on a plane rather than offer myself to a government that refuses to represent me. I do think it is a great idea to have these devices at shipping ports. I also think it needs to be available to the public for purchase.
LED Guy
not rated yet Jul 12, 2012
Everyone should relax, you are all being hoaxed. None of this adds up to reality if you walk through the math. It gets a little complex, but here's a shot at it.

To begin with detection of "a few molecules". A trillion molecules in a gas at room temperature and pressure gives you about 1 ppt (that's part per trillion). It's damned near impossible to detect that without direct sampling and using equipment costing $500k or more (say a very nice state of the art mass spectrometer with differential pumping system and a capillary probe).

If "a few moelcules" means 1000, then you are trying to detect 1 part in a trillion trillion. Good luck with that.
LED Guy
not rated yet Jul 12, 2012
On to remote detection. If you are using THz (terahertz) radiation for remote detection at sub ppt (parts per trillion) then you have to use photoluminescence. Think of a black light poster. The problem is that the signal would be emitted in all directions.

If your detector is 1m in diameter, then from 50m away you only get to see 0.0025% of whatever signal there is. Hide that 1m wide detector that has to scan through the crowd. You'll never know its there (yeah right, unless your blind).
LED Guy
not rated yet Jul 12, 2012
OK, you've surmounted 2 near impossible hurdles. You're 1m wide detector is receiving 1 billion THz photons every second from a 1 liter sample volume 50m away and the target substance is present in a concentraion of 1 part in a trillion trillion (that's 1,000 molecules in 1 liter).

How much energy are you detecting? A 1 THz photon has 0.004 eV of energy. That's 6.6 x 10-13 nanoJoules. But it's OK because you get a billion/second. That gives you 0.66 picoWatts. That's just of half of a BILLIONTH of a Watt.

Sure NASA can pick up signals of that strength, but they aren't using a 1m wide dish.

Now keep in mind that that tiny, tiny signal is going to be hidden in a whole haystack of signals from everything else that is present in much higher (like a million trillion times higher).

We are all safe.
Vendicar_Decarian
not rated yet Jul 13, 2012
This device comes along just as Americans were getting used to being rectally probed.

Sad.
xen_uno
3 / 5 (2) Jul 13, 2012
Screw you DHS and the president you rode in on!
borc
not rated yet Jul 13, 2012
I prefer it to being exploded.

The cans wouldn't explode if carried on board, which is pressurized. They WILL explode if put in your checked luggage.-------- I interpreted it as him saying he'd rather be scanned than blown up by a terrorist.
borc
not rated yet Jul 13, 2012
Back in the pre-Homeland Security days I had hair conditioner and shampoo bottles explode in my checked baggage --- you can still check that shit, and you have always been able to safely do it without it going pop. pressurized it a little. squeeze the bottle and close the lid. fini.
JGHunter
1 / 5 (1) Jul 13, 2012
I wonder if this will pick up on hidden tin foil hats?
Claudius
1 / 5 (2) Jul 13, 2012
you can still check that shit, and you have always been able to safely do it without it going pop. pressurized it a little. squeeze the bottle and close the lid. fini.


I found that out after the explosion. Your advice does not apply to soda cans, however.

I interpreted it as him saying he'd rather be scanned than blown up by a terrorist.


Of course, Homeland Security is your friend. Why wouldn't you want to be scanned? Why wouldn't you want to have your private parts gently massaged by friendly protectors wearing blue gloves? New technology is coming on line that will allow helpful searches to be a part of our daily lives, 24/7. Terrorists are around every corner, they attack constantly and we need Homeland Security, like a big brother, to protect us. Forever.

"Ack Ack, Don't run, we are your friends."

Royale
not rated yet Jul 13, 2012
Screw you DHS and the president you rode in on!

By president you rode in on I hope you mean Bush. Obama certainly didnt start DHS.
Vendicar_Decarian
5 / 5 (2) Jul 13, 2012
It will, but since almost half of Americans wear them, it isn't going to help much.

"I wonder if this will pick up on hidden tin foil hats?" - JGHunter
Sanescience
not rated yet Jul 14, 2012
I could go either way on this being a hoax or not. Certainly there would need to be a way to measure thresholds for detection, or probably not even a binary yes/no result, but a signal strength. I have read articles before on T-ray detectors before that were very hopeful for materials detection.

That said, the real benefit of something like this might be medical, being able to sniff out wide variety of disease markers and imbalances.
xen_uno
2 / 5 (1) Jul 14, 2012
Royale - "By president you rode in on I hope you mean Bush. Obama certainly didnt start DHS."

Yes I meant Bush, but Obama has done nothing after promising to reel in these out of control morons. Meet the new boss ... same as the old boss.
Burnerjack
not rated yet Jul 14, 2012
As an ex-business flier for 15 years,I mostly flew on one way tickets. this is a "front-of-the-line to the full monty in scanning. Couple that with a dead laptop battery... Yeah, it sucked. Big time. I never lost sight of the fact that being instantly incinerated in midair was an infinite jump in "suckness". If any of you "would be Constitutional Attorneys" would consider the fate of innocent children (among others)in such an event,I suspect your incessant whining would lose a certain shrillness. Any argument that scanning/screening serves no purpose is muted by the fact that it has been quite some time since anyone hijacked a flight to Cuba(probably before most of you had awareness to such events. Does it suck? Yep, sure does. is it the fault of Government? No. It is the fault of a nameless(I'll let YOU do the math) 7th century ideology hellbent on the subgugation of (you guessed it)you. maybe it could be done better, more efficient, more effective, etc., point is, it's necessary.
Meyer
1 / 5 (1) Jul 14, 2012
I do hope they sell this to the general public. Some of those female TSA agents are very attractive and I wouldn't mind taking a peek under the uniform with my terahertz-enabled phone. Show me yours and I'll show mine, or shall we say "tit for tat." Come on baby, what have you got to hide?
socean
not rated yet Jul 15, 2012
Whether or not this scanner is ever deployed, scanning will continue to progress and will become more widespread. Its the same with every technology, e.g. gps, cams, etc.

One question it seems to me is, who gets to see the data? How about making it universally available?

Another question is, who is exempted? I say if anyone gets scanned, everyone, including "the authorities", should get scanned. And again, ALL the data should be made public.

Why? Because then everyone has the information they need to sort out who is really breaking rules and who isn't.

Those that wish to prosecute, and those that wish to defend should be on equal footing.

sonicsmooth
not rated yet Jul 15, 2012

The cans wouldn't explode if carried on board, which is pressurized. They WILL explode if put in your checked luggage.

Just so you know.


Ummm actually no. Commercial airplanes for like the last several decades have both the main cabin and the hold pressurized and temperature controlled to the same level. How do you think you can put a pet carrier in the hold without killing poor fido? The pressurization is typically equivalent to around 10,000 feet altitude, not sea level, so yes things can go pop. For example when you get airplane food, the yogurt or little packages of salad dressing are bulging out. Not sure why your soda can exploded, but it's certainty not because the hold is at a different pressure from the main cabin.
unknownorgin
not rated yet Jul 26, 2012
I do not see how this device could be practical with all the hyrocarbons in the air from the jet turbines plus whatever might drift in from nearby industry even some perfumes/deoderants may overload it.

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