From The Editor | July 13, 2012

Airport Security Scanning Without You Knowing It

By Ron Grunsby

Within one to two years, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) could have a laser-based molecular scanner in place at airports and border crossings that can scan people for traces of dangerous substances without them even knowing it. The scanner was developed by Genia Photonics, who claims the picosecond programmable laser system can detect trace amounts of explosives, chemical agents, and hazardous biological substances from up to 50 meters away. DHS is funding the project through the not-for-profit, strategic investment firm In-Q-Tel.

The portable, rack-mounted system works in picoseconds and could also be deployed in stadiums, train stations, or wherever else DHS believes a possible threat exists. The device relies on a very advanced form of spectroscopy, using terahertz radiation to characterize materials. The terahertz signals used in this system are very low power and non-ionizing – therefore believed to be safe.

The device can penetrate materials such as wood, leather, cloth, ceramics, plastic, and paper. It can even detect high levels of adrenaline in the bloodstream. Due to the speed in which it works — it basically reads the environment in real time — and its very high level of sensitivity, this device could thoroughly scan everyone in an airport’s terminals, which means that the process of singling out people for extra security measures could become unnecessary.

The high level of sensitivity could cause some problems, however. How would it be handled if the device picked up gunpowder residue from a recent hunting trip or traces of fertilizer on someone who just fertilized their lawn? Personal rights and privacy issues will also have to be addressed.