Entries Tagged "sensors"

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Technologies of Surveillance

It’s a new day for the New York Police Department, with technology increasingly informing the way cops do their jobs. With innovation comes new possibilities but also new concerns.

For one, the NYPD is testing a new type of security apparatus that uses terahertz radiation to detect guns under clothing from a distance. As Police Commissioner Ray Kelly explained to the Daily News back in January, If something is obstructing the flow of that radiation — a weapon, for example — the device will highlight that object.

Ignore, for a moment, the glaring constitutional concerns, which make the stop-and-frisk debate pale in comparison: virtual strip-searching, evasion of probable cause, potential racial profiling. Organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union are all over those, even though their opposition probably won’t make a difference. We’re scared of both terrorism and crime, even as the risks decrease; and when we’re scared, we’re willing to give up all sorts of freedoms to assuage our fears. Often, the courts go along.

A more pressing question is the effectiveness of technologies that are supposed to make us safer. These include the NYPD’s Domain Awareness System, developed by Microsoft, which aims to integrate massive quantities of data to alert cops when a crime may be taking place. Other innovations are surely in the pipeline, all promising to make the city safer. But are we being sold a bill of goods?

For example, press reports make the gun-detection machine look good. We see images from the camera that pretty clearly show a gun outlined under someone’s clothing. From that, we can imagine how this technology can spot gun-toting criminals as they enter government buildings or terrorize neighborhoods. Given the right inputs, we naturally construct these stories in our heads. The technology seems like a good idea, we conclude.

The reality is that we reach these conclusions much in the same way we decide that, say, drinking Mountain Dew makes you look cool. These are, after all, the products of for-profit companies, pushed by vendors looking to make sales. As such, they’re marketed no less aggressively than soda pop and deodorant. Those images of criminals with concealed weapons were carefully created both to demonstrate maximum effectiveness and push our fear buttons. These companies deliberately craft stories of their effectiveness, both through advertising and placement on television and movies, where police are often showed using high-powered tools to catch high-value targets with minimum complication.

The truth is that many of these technologies are nowhere near as reliable as claimed. They end up costing us gazillions of dollars and open the door for significant abuse. Of course, the vendors hope that by the time we realize this, they’re too embedded in our security culture to be removed.

The current poster child for this sort of morass is the airport full-body scanner. Rushed into airports after the underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab nearly blew up a Northwest Airlines flight in 2009, they made us feel better, even though they don’t work very well and, ironically, wouldn’t have caught Abdulmutallab with his underwear bomb. Both the Transportation Security Administration and vendors repeatedly lied about their effectiveness, whether they stored images, and how safe they were. In January, finally, backscatter X-ray scanners were removed from airports because the company who made them couldn’t sufficiently blur the images so they didn’t show travelers naked. Now, only millimeter-wave full-body scanners remain.

Another example is closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras. These have been marketed as a technological solution to both crime and understaffed police and security organizations. London, for example, is rife with them, and New York has plenty of its own. To many, it seems apparent that they make us safer, despite cries of Big Brother. The problem is that in study after study, researchers have concluded that they don’t.

Counterterrorist data mining and fusion centers: nowhere near as useful as those selling the technologies claimed. It’s the same with DNA testing and fingerprint technologies: both are far less accurate than most people believe. Even torture has been oversold as a security system — this time by a government instead of a company — despite decades of evidence that it doesn’t work and makes us all less safe.

It’s not that these technologies are totally useless. It’s that they’re expensive, and none of them is a panacea. Maybe there’s a use for a terahertz radar, and maybe the benefits of the technology are worth the costs. But we should not forget that there’s a profit motive at work, too.

An edited version of this essay, without links, appeared in the New York Daily News.

EDITED TO ADD (2/13): IBM’s version massive data policing system is being tested in Rio de Jeneiro.

Posted on March 5, 2013 at 6:28 AMView Comments

Remote Scanning Technology

I don’t know if this is real or fantasy:

Within the next year or two, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will instantly know everything about your body, clothes, and luggage with a new laser-based molecular scanner fired from 164 feet (50 meters) away. 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.

The meta-point is less about this particular technology, and more about the arc of technological advancements in general. All sorts of remote surveillance technologies — facial recognition, remote fingerprint recognition, RFID/Bluetooth/cell phone tracking, license plate tracking — are becoming possible, cheaper, smaller, more reliable, etc. It’s wholesale surveillance, something I wrote about back in 2004.

We’re at a unique time in the history of surveillance: the cameras are everywhere, and we can still see them. Fifteen years ago, they weren’t everywhere. Fifteen years from now, they’ll be so small we won’t be able to see them. Similarly, all the debates we’ve had about national ID cards will become moot as soon as these surveillance technologies are able to recognize us without us even knowing it.

EDITED TO ADD (8/13): Related papers, and a video.

Posted on July 16, 2012 at 1:59 PMView Comments

New Airport Scanning Technology

Interesting:

Iscon’s patented, thermo-conductive technology combines infrared (IR) and heat transfer, for high-resolution imaging without using any radiation. The core of this is state of the art imaging which detects and processes a break in the established thermal balance between the clothes and a hidden object. The IR camera detects the heat radiating from even a tiny object, producing a dark/light shape. It is irrelevant how long an object is concealed under clothing as a new temperature imprint is created every time it is scanned. Using IR, the rays don’t penetrate beyond the clothing so there are no privacy issues.

EDITED TO ADD (6/14): Another article.

I know no details.

Posted on June 10, 2011 at 6:14 AMView Comments

Fingerprint Scanner that Works at a Distance

Scanning fingerprints from six feet away.

Slightly smaller than a square tissue box, AIRprint houses two 1.3 megapixel cameras and a source of polarized light. One camera receives horizontally polarized light, while the other receives vertically polarized light. When light hits a finger, the ridges of the fingerprint reflect one polarization of light, while the valleys reflect another. “That’s where the real kicker is, because if you look at an image without any polarization, you can kind of see fingerprints, but not really well,” says Burcham. By separating the vertical and the horizontal polarization, the device can overlap those images to produce an accurate fingerprint, which is fed to a computer for verification.

No information on how accurate it is, but it’ll only get better.

Posted on May 17, 2011 at 7:46 AMView Comments

Bomb-Sniffing Mice

I was interviewed for this story on a mouse-powered explosives detector. Animal senses are better than any detection machine current technology can build, which makes it a good idea. But the challenges of using animals in this sort of situation are considerable. The neat thing about the technology profiled in the article, which the article didn’t make as clear as I would have liked, is how far it goes in making the mice just another interchangeable part in the system. They’re encased in cartridges, which can be swapped in and out of the system. They don’t need regular handling:

Unlike dogs, which are often trained for explosives and drugs detection, mice don’t require constant interaction with their trainers or treats to keep them motivated. As a result, they can live in comfortable cages with unlimited access to food and water. Each mouse would work two 4-hour shifts a day, and would have a working life of 18 months.

If we are ever going to see animals in a mass-produced system, it’s going to look something like this.

Posted on February 9, 2011 at 11:39 AMView Comments

New TSA Security Test

I experienced a new TSA security check at Phoenix Airport last Thursday. The agent took my over-three-ounce bottle of saline, put a drop of it on a white cardboard strip, and then put a drop of another liquid on top of that. Nothing changed color, and she let me go.

Anyone know what the test is, and what it’s testing for?

Posted on December 10, 2010 at 2:11 PMView Comments

Alternate Scanning Technologies

Iscon uses infrared light rather than X-rays. I have no idea how well it works.

And Rapiscan has a new patent:

Abstract:

The present invention is directed towards an X-ray people screening system capable of rapidly screening people for detection of metals, low Z materials (plastics, ceramics and illicit drugs) and other contraband which might be concealed beneath the person’s clothing or on the person’s body. In an exemplary embodiment, the scanning system has two scanning modules that are placed in parallel, yet opposing positions relative to each other. The two modules are spaced to allow a subject, such as a person, to stand and pass between the two scanning modules. The first module and second module each include a radiation source (such as X-ray radiation) and a detector array. The subject under inspection stands between the two modules such that a front side of the subject faces one module and the back side of the subject faces the other module.

Posted on December 10, 2010 at 6:22 AMView Comments

New Biometric

Eye movements instead of eye structures.

The new system tracks the way a person’s eye moves as he watches an icon roam around a computer screen. The way the icon moves can be different every time, but the user’s eye movements include “kinetic features” — slight variations in trajectory — that are unique, making it possible to identify him.

Posted on November 17, 2010 at 7:13 AMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.