July 11, 2012

Tricorders have arrived

Science buffs have known for decades that it was possible to build a Tricorder. Much of the technology was huge to deploy and expensive to build, but it was possible. Early versions include MRIs and CT scanners. Kind of hard to fold either one of those up and carry it in your pocket. Full-body scanners have become an unwelcome annoyance in TSA security lines at airports all across America. These scanners were originally developed for security applications in African gold and diamond mines and as far as I know, have not yet been deployed in medical applications.

Scanner technology has now taken the next leap forward, bringing us one step closer to Star Trek's ubiquitous "Tricorder". No, I'm not talking about the "Tricorder App" that nerds everywhere have added to their smart phones. A company called In-Q-Tel has created a laser scanner system small enough to be used in both mobile applications and/or mounted almost everywhere Big Brother might like to have one. Even better, not only is this system incredibly portable it is very sensitive, able to pull out and identify a single molecule from whatever target it has been aimed at.

Despite the advantages such a system would have in any and every security application imaginable, I cannot help but wonder if it is too sensitive. If I jump in a taxi on my way to JFK Airport and pick up some cocaine residue from the seat, some left-over marijuana residue on my sleeve from the smoke in the air left by the driver's last joint, and a few grams of LSD on the bottom of my shoe, this new scanner can and will immediately detect all of them as I walk through TSA on the way to my gate. Does this mean TSA will now have the right, no, the responsibility to pull me out of the security line and interrogate me? What if I clean my guns before catching an afternoon flight out of Cleveland-Hopkins airport? These new scanners will immediately sound gunpowder, nitrate, and cleaning fluid alarms. Will I then be held for questioning and charged with terrorism just because I cleaned my guns the morning of my flight? Even if I don't clean my guns, there is almost certain to be gunpowder residue on my shoes from walking around on the gun range and from target practice.

About ten years ago I had this weird semi-nightmare. I had to fly to the Middle East to participate in an archaeology site. At the airport on the way out I had to strip, pass through a decontamination shower, and wear clothes provided by the airline: a bright-orange prison jumpsuit, white socks, and black shoes that were a bit too large. My clothes, cash, and other personal items were returned to me at the arrival airport after I passed through a second decontamination shower.

I woke up from that dream wondering what had inspired it. Some movie or some book, probably. The images have stayed with me all this time. If the IQT Laser Scanner is deployed at airports around the world, the only possible way to prevent false positives would be to institute a program like the one I experienced in my dream. Every passenger would have to pass through a sterilization process and that process itself would render the scanners useless.

This paranoia that has gripped the world since 9/11 needs to end. Yes, the deaths of all those innocent passengers is horrific. Unfortunately, there is no humane way to prevent these kinds of tragedies. The only realistic plan is to maximize human intelligence gathering by "turning" members of terror groups or "planting" informers in terror groups.

Unless, of course, we just implement my original gut reaction as I watched the towers fall: transform the entire Middle East into a desert of green glass! About a third of the world's population would die and Middle Eastern oil would no longer be available, but hey, the terrorism problem would be solved and there would be no more need for body scanners!