Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Coming End of Privacy

Gizmodo reports this week about a new remote detection system that will be able to detect "interesting" chemicals on your body from over 160 feet (50 meters).  The system is said to work on Terahertz radiation; a part of the electromagnetic spectrum where the techniques lean toward optical approaches rather than conventional radio.  It appears to be an infrared laser spectrometer system, like other systems that are showing up (this last one in Russia).   
From traces of drugs or gun powder on your clothes to what you had for breakfast to the adrenaline level in your body—agents will be able to get any information they want without even touching you.
TSA - the DHS - has already contracted for these systems from a company called Genia Photonics, under contract to another company, In-Q-Tel, a company founded "in February 1999 by a group of private citizens at the request of the Director of the CIA and with the support of the U.S. Congress."  This is one of those private sector/ joined-at-the-hip relationships we read about.

Particularly interesting (or ominous) is this factoid:
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.
Meanwhile, In-Q-Tel states that "an important benefit of Genia Photonics' implementation as compared to existing solutions is that 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."
That means it could be placed anywhere, and with a radius of 50m, they could be placed in stadiums, bus terminals, shopping malls - anywhere. 

On the one hand, if it were limited to current TSA installations, it sounds better than the extended TSA Molocaust  and general douchbaggery we see everyday, but on the other, In-Q-Tel doesn't talk about false alarm rates, or other problems that always exist in sophisticated systems - and you can bet they won't.  You know these systems will produce false positives, getting innocent people pulled over,  false negatives, letting people with "contraband" pass, and the boxes will fail.  The systems are expected to be showing up in airports as soon as next year.
Going well beyond eavesdropping, it seems quite possible that U.S. government plans on recording molecular data on travelers without their consent, or even knowledge that it's possible—a scary thought. While the medical uses could revolutionize the way doctors diagnose illness, and any technology that could replace an aggressive pat-down is tempting, there's a potential dark side to this implementation, and we need to shine some light on it before it's implemented.
But what are the chances this will be limited?  The ruling class will be unable to resist a toy like this.


  1. Sounds like absolute BS

    Imagine, no clean rooms labs with filtered air needed for spectrometry. At a distance!

    Not surprising Solyndra "investors" want a piece of this action?

    careful not to spill the pyrodex...

    1. Well, that's kinda different, isn't it? The filters in clean rooms are to remove particles, not analyze them.

      The concept of this sort of instrument is pretty straightforward (if I understand them correctly): they scan the area in far IR and everything radiates in response, then they use the response frequency to identify the compound. The "breakthrough" is probably processing speed and architecture.

      Mind you, I'm not convinced it can be made reliable enough for the job (2nd paragraph above the "Minority Report" image). I'm more convinced they'd deploy it no matter how bad it was. Not just "careful not to spill the pyrodex"; don't get near the airport if you're coming back from the range!

  2. Technology will continue to progress to the point that the use of such technology will have the potential to make privacy obsolete.

    But let's think this through. Assuming we manage to preserve any semblance of a democratically elected government, eventually the population will push back.

    The majority of the population does things that are either illegal, or certainly things they don't want others knowing about.

    This progress of technology and the eventual abuse could actually sew the seeds of a libertarian backlash.

    Lets hope. Unfortunately we'll have to find methods of avoidance in the meantime.