More Police State Technology


Working in tech as long as I have, I tend to take pre-announcements of “great new thing coming soon” as suspicious. But prerelease teasers are a way of telling what research is being done, and/or is ready to come to market eventually. And a lot of research is being targeted at the police state, because that’s where the money is…

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This one sounds somewhat plausible, given the proliferation of increasingly inexpensive light sensors, compute power, and laser frequencies. The way they’re spinning it is really unsettling to me:

The Genia Photonics’ Picosecond Programmable Laser scanner is capable of detecting every tiny trace of any substance on your body, from specks of gunpowder to your adrenaline levels to a sugar-sized grain of cannabis to what you had for breakfast.

Sounds to me like a laser spectrometer that’s able to read and match parts of the spectrum at high speeds.

The Russians are also making laser scanners, also with the idea of being able to detect certain compounds at a very long range (50 meters!) Watching the video of the Russian machine, you can hear some kind of rotating mirror being spun up to speed, it must be shooting very low-power tuned beams all over the place.

surveil

Typical of the surviellance state: someone going about their life is being watched from a secret room, using technology that monitors everything it can about them. But you’ll notice nobody is watching the watchman.

When they first started using the gas spectrometry explosive detectors, I missed a flight from San Francisco home because my boots had fertilizer on them (Scott’s “weed and feed” has a lot of nitrates in it, it turns out!)  and I thought that the number of false positives was going to kill the technology. I suspect that these laser scanner systems will be even worse, if they are that precise. One could do a fairly effective area denial of service attack simply by going to an airport with some ultra finely-ground ammonium nitrate and tracking it around, getting your hands on escalator handrails, etc. (Something I thought of years ago, back when the bomb detectors first appeared)

It’s frustrating that the immediate response is to orient this sort of technology toward surveillance and the police state, when there are many better uses it could be put to. If it works as advertised, it’s a Star Trek style tricorder: you could point it at someone and tell them if their blood sugar is off. You could perform an Ames Test for carcinogenic compounds, and notify people who were being exposed to them. Or you could do an occult blood test on fecal samples to detect certain possible markers for some cancers. It sounds to me – from the claims – that you could probably tune the thing to detect someone expressing a virus. Maybe. I’m sure that’s a future application. If there was a specific metabolite that resulted from some kind of virus or cancer, couldn’t it be detected? (Imagine the TSA security guy taking a passenger aside and saying, “sir, I don’t know if you’re aware but that mole on your cheek is turning into a melanoma”)

Other fun possible applications: you could tell who was drunk, or high, and on what. Thus you could identify cops and politicians, airplane pilots and truck drivers who were abusing substances. Like with the license plate scanners, it would detect famous people who were abusing drugs, as effectively as it would detect poor brown people. Of course, such technology would never be employed in that way. Mass surveillance in principle could be a great social leveller, and we can’t have anything like that.

The laser is not visible to the eye. So the police state will define that as not a “search” because you need to something something be visible something something mumble. And they’re already (correctly) pointing out that it doesn’t emit as much radiation as backscatter scanners.

clothing

Oh, and course it will let cops look at pretty girls through their clothes. You can’t change cops, it’s just something about the mindset of authoritarians that they love to strip search people.

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RT: Russian invisible laser bomb detector makes molecular scan at 50 meters

Gizmodo: Hidden Government Scanners Will Instantly Know Everything About You From 164 Feet Away

Comments

  1. says

    I remember people chatting about Big Brother in 1984, everyone laughed, and there were sighs of relief that it didn’t happen.

    It’s hellish now that it has happened. This is yet another “tool” to oppress the oppressed, especially when they aren’t doing anything very wrong. That one grain of cannabis and the like will be used, snaring people on technicalities, tossing them into the jaws of the system to fill their quotas, and make sure people get into justice system debt.

  2. felicis says

    Theranos.

    I am pretty sure, that like Theranos, this is a big ol’ scam that will cost a lot of money but not actually do anything. An attempt to get through to the technical notes yields a bunch of error messages, so… Color me unimpressed.

    I expect we will see more of this kind of thing – ‘experts’ will produce something that makes noise and blinks a light randomly and costs a ton of money, but never quite works. Or is deployed without working, but used as a ’cause’ for a regular search. Note that its actual functionality is secondary to being able to be used to erode our rights.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    … I missed a flight from San Francisco home because my boots had fertilizer on them …

    Somehow, I find it easier to imagine you tracking fertilizer from a farm in Pennsylvania to a highly-built-up peninsular city than vice-versa.

    felicis @ # 3: … ‘experts’ will produce something that makes noise and blinks a light randomly and costs a ton of money, but never quite works.

    A machine don’t mean a thing, if it don’t make a ping!

  4. invivoMark says

    I am pretty sure, that like Theranos, this is a big ol’ scam that will cost a lot of money but not actually do anything. An attempt to get through to the technical notes yields a bunch of error messages, so… Color me unimpressed.

    I agree. I think if the device worked as advertised, I’d have salespeople assaulting me with brochures for products I could use in the lab. It’s much more likely these people want to keep their product as far away as possible from skeptical scientists who are much more prudent with their expenditures on expensive devices. So sadly, the reason the devices won’t be used for all those wonderful purposes Marcus mentions is most probably because it simply can’t. It probably works with all the rigor and precision of a bored TSA agent, and that’s all it needs to do to get sold.

  5. says

    felicis@#3:
    I am pretty sure, that like Theranos, this is a big ol’ scam that will cost a lot of money but not actually do anything. An attempt to get through to the technical notes yields a bunch of error messages, so… Color me unimpressed.

    I’m not up enough on the physics to know how possible it is, but the fact that there are several groups working on what seems to be basically the same idea: that’s interesting. Also, boffins seem to have a tendency to make things that are theoretically possible become actual – remember when backscatter was considered unlikely to work? That was a mere 10 years ago.

    I agree it’s probably a prerelease by someone who’s trying to get in line at the homeland security trough. Unfortunately, it’s a very deep and attractive trough.

    I doubt that it’s going to be able to do all the stuff they expect it to, But if they can get it to just scan for nitrogen-heavy compounds, then they’re going to have an amazing false positive generator.

  6. says

    Pierce R. Butler@#4:
    Somehow, I find it easier to imagine you tracking fertilizer from a farm in Pennsylvania to a highly-built-up peninsular city than vice-versa.

    Here’s a problem with the current crop of explosive detectors:
    – Marcus walks around yard, where “weed and feed” has been spread (nitrogen grass food)
    – Marcus’ boots get soaked in nitrates
    – Marcus flies to San Francisco from a small airport where they don’t check everything for nitrogen compounds
    – On return flight from San Francisco, rent-a-cop checks Marcus’ gear for nitrogen compounds – BING!!! BING!!! BING!!!!
    – Marcus explains to rent-a-cop, “yeah, I live on a farm.”
    – Rent-a-cop does not understand a !*!(#&! thing and calls supervisor
    – Marcus misses his flight
    – The nation is saved

    A machine don’t mean a thing, if it don’t make a ping!

    Ping! Ping! That’s the sound of a false positive!

  7. says

    invivoMark@#5:
    It’s much more likely these people want to keep their product as far away as possible from skeptical scientists who are much more prudent with their expenditures

    Well, TSA are the same bunch of shallow-oil-level dipsticks that bought dowsing rods to see if they’d detect explosives.

  8. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    Unfortunately Marcus, you have a hard argument to sell. You have to convince people that Big Brother government is a bigger danger than guns and explosives. Good luck. From my experience, the fear of guns and explosives will win out over the fear of government corruption and abuse every time – unless your target audience is white rednecks, and even then it’s iffy.

    Of course, I’m with you in the fight against Big Brother government, but I fear we’re on the losing side.

  9. Pierce R. Butler says

    Marcus Ranum @ # 9 – I suppose it would be too much to hope for that the TSA persons told this Marcus character that he should in the future “watch his step”…

  10. says

    EnlightenmentLiberal@#11:
    You have to convince people that Big Brother government is a bigger danger than guns and explosives. Good luck.

    I’m not sure I’m trying to do that. I’m hoping to get a few people to open their eyes and realize that when someone says “we’re from the government and we’re here to help” it usually is not the sound of incoming goodness. But ultimately, it’s not my problem. They’ll figure it out, too late. Actually, I think it’s already too late.

  11. says

    I am pretty sure that they’ve fixed the false positive problem by replacing the system that detected certain compounds with one that doesn’t do anything except make people nervous.

    The real mystery of the current state of the US police state is that to date it mainly tells us that nobody competent (and by that I mean “can tell time, and show up to appointments” not “is a bomb expert”) is even trying to get us. I find this genuinely puzzling, not because I have any *particular* scores to settle, but because it seems to me that so many other people *do*, and yet..

  12. says

    Pierce R. Butler@#12:
    Eventually they let me go. No advice or apology or admission that they were even a tiny bit stupid.

    I do actually understand part of their problem: they cannot admit they are fallible because then they will always be questioned (to which I respond: you will always be questioned anyway) and if they do let someone by who causes an incident, then they’ll be partially blamed for negligence. And they have no downside for making someone miss a flight, so they don’t really care. Shrug. It’s my problem, in other words.

    Really, it’s a problem of asymmetric knowledge: I know there’s no bomb in my bag, but they don’t and they cannot possibly trust me. I’m sure it didn’t help when I said, “look just cut to the chase and dissect everything in my bag. I know you won’t find anything, but if you hurry up and don’t find anything I won’t miss my flight.” Being a TSA screener has to be a pretty miserable job full of hatred for everyone and self-loathing.

  13. says

    Andrew Molitor@#14:
    Yeah, that puzzles me, too. There are so many relatively easy ways to do tremendous damage, and the people who would presumably want to cause damage and suffering appear to be ignorant of them. Apparently they just aren’t very creative or they don’t do their research or something. It makes no sense to me at all, except that possibly being an oppressed and vengeful person doesn’t generally allow one much chance to attain a classical education, study Ho Chi Mihn, Sun Tzu, and Mao, and learn anything about tradecraft. From where I sit, I’m not about to teach them. Yet.

  14. Dunc says

    Marcus, @16:
    Presumably the people with the necessary classic education are smart enough to realise that doing “tremendous damage” won’t actually advance their interests – if anything, it would simply serve to strengthen their opponents.

    It’s conventional wisdom in radical protest circles that anybody advocating the use of violence is either an idiot or a narc.

  15. sonofrojblake says

    Being a TSA screener has to be a pretty miserable job full of hatred for everyone and self-loathing.

    If only they lived somewhere where it was possible for them to get a job doing literally anything else.

  16. sonofrojblake says

    doing “tremendous damage” won’t actually advance their interests

    I worked in a nuclear facility in 1990, and over a pub lunch my colleagues and I had the same discussion and came to the same conclusion, with reference to the IRA. Messing about with small bombs killing the odd child here and there seemed so… amateurish, to our professional-chemical-engineer eyes. The conversation started around “why don’t they do something bigger?”, and concluded that they were perfectly capable of doing so and chose not to for political reasons. The alternative – that literally nobody who agreed with them was capable of having the thoughts we were spitballing in the pub – simply didn’t stack up.

  17. felicis says

    @Marcus #8 : Physics aside (is it *possible*? Sure… Maybe…), my larger point is that it doesn’t matter if it works or not. *ping* you’ve been selected for extra screening. Fourth amendment? Well – our machine went *ping*, so that is enough reason to ignore that pesky fourth amendment. Just as when a dog ‘reacts’ and they now get to search your car. It does not matter that police dogs are notoriously unreliable, SCOTUS has already upheld such searches. This just adds a veneer of technical (magic) validity. As for how it works, it could simply be a random-number generator that pings on 17% of the samples (which would actually improve security by making additional screening truly random – though, no doubt that would then be obviated by allowing ‘pre-screening’ for those with money to pay for it).

    A minor consideration is how much money will get wasted on this boondoggle. If anything, given the last 30 years of governance, it’s a feature.

  18. brucegee1962 says

    Actually, Marcus, your post contains a great remedy for this situation. Whenever a bill gets voted on to allow such an intrusive technology, get someone to introduce an amendment that, if the bill is approved, then the tech will immediately be tested in the chamber where the vote takes place, and the results published. Surely legislators who have faith in the technology will have no problems with that, nor will such fine upstanding citizens have anything to hide, right?

  19. says

    felicis@#20:
    *ping* you’ve been selected for extra screening. Fourth amendment? Well – our machine went *ping*, so that is enough reason to ignore that pesky fourth amendment.

    Yeah, you’re right. I’m suddenly thinking that license plate scanners are also a perfect excuse to pull anyone over any time. “OH, it must have mis-read your plate and mistaken you for a non-white person…”

  20. says

    brucegee@#21:
    Whenever a bill gets voted on to allow such an intrusive technology, get someone to introduce an amendment that, if the bill is approved, then the tech will immediately be tested in the chamber where the vote takes place, and the results published.

    Now I am going to have to draft a “Sauce for the goose” amendment. :/
    You’re right: a great deal of bullshit gets implemented simply because those that propose it are able to avoid it.

    …. says the person who only managed to catch his flight because he had TSA Precheck (and the $85 to sign up for the program) and was able to avoid the slow line and made it to the gate with 5 minutes to spare…