05 September 2012

All-seeing airport scanners

Cybershrink looks at airport scanners, their snags and evaders. And at a weird range of glow-in-the dark underwear to protect you from radiation.


We've been growing used (at least if we fly internationally) to being scanned by a variety of systems, which may enable bored security personnel to gaze upon un-edifying and somewhat shadowy but reasonably explicit nude views of our bodies.

Even to having to accept an intimate "pat-down", to use the cosy term for an invasive physical search. If otherwise performed on you by a stranger in a mall, such searches could lead to criminal charges, though maybe the sexually desperate welcome them. If you go through security too many times, maybe they'll stop you, or at least start to charge?

Anyhow, some recent news reports have almost accidentally revealed that there are new and remarkably sensitive scanners in use at some airports, which we need to know about. People have been arrested and even jailed for carrying, perhaps accidentally, extraordinarily tiny quantities of banned substances. The potential for safe scanning for a range of relevant substances is awesome, as is the potential for absurd arrests and harassment.

Arrested for a poppy-seed
A Sky News report revealed that a British man arriving at Dubai airport was jailed for four years in 2008 after a tiny, tiny amount of cannabis (weighing less than a grain of sugar) was found in a cigarette stub stuck in the tread of his shoe, and only after a sensible fuss was made, was he pardoned.

Now that's what you call a zero-tolerance drug policy. He could hardly have been assumed to be planning to chew the stompie and get high on the fragment of dagga. This wasn't a unique event, as the BBC reported in the same year that a Swiss citizen was sentenced to four years for carrying three poppy-seeds on his clothes, seemingly the residue of a roll he had eaten at Heathrow airport in transit. 

We can learn two lessons here: one is to anticipate the possibility of absurdly severe anti-drug actions in the UAE and maybe elsewhere; and the other is to wonder how such extraordinary detections were possible.

A recent article from NetworkWorld  in that excellent publication PC World explored this area.

The usual Full Body Scanners use one of two technologies: Backscatter X-ray scanners effectively bounce X-rays off you to produce their pictures, and there are still unresolved concerns about their safety, especially in the long-term. And there are concerns that they may not, anyway, recognise relevant terrorist materials. Then there are Millimetre wave scanners, considered probably safe, using wider wave-length non-ionising radiation. They can't see into body cavities, and have problems with multiple layers of clothing.

Tera-herz scanning
The recent breakthrough has been in Terahertz scanners. It uses radiation between microwave and infrared, probably safe, and though it has difficulty with metal and water, it penetrates clothes, cardboard and paper, wood, plastic and ceramics.

Now, where it gets really interesting, is the potential of Terahertz Spectroscopy. Many other wave-forms and technologies have been used in the vital art of detecting explosives, with varying sensitivity. Not only (according to studies by originating companies like Genia Photonics) is this method valuable in detecting the characteristic vapour signatures of relevant explosives, but also many interesting chemicals and pharmacologies.

Unlike other methods, you don't have to be shut in an enclosure or even to be particularly close to the machine. Even from 150 feet away (about 45 metres) they claim that terahertz radiation reflected back from you can be detected and reveal within pico-seconds, molecular signatures even measuring substances within your bloodstream!

So people could be scanned while simply walking past, revealing the pill in their pocket, the residue of last night's party in their blood. This is presumably how the uncanny and scary stops at Dubai Airport were made. Apparently without your specific permission, your chemical secrets could be revealed. 

One wonders whether such methods could be adapted to clinical settings? Could the scanner check, as people enter the clinic waiting-room, whether they've been taking their medicines? Or maybe automatically carry out some useful blood tests without the need for someone with a needle to draw blood? 

Anti-Radiation underpants
Now, every technological advance breeds an equal and opposite technological evasion. A company called Rockyflatsgear, sells, over the net, a range of  clothing items you can wear, to protect your precious parts both from exposure to the usual scanner radiations, and from exposure to the sneaky eyes of the scanner staff.

They suggest that these systems might not themselves be detected by at least some of the various systems, mainly wands and metal detectors, but they should show up on other scanners, let alone not evading the Terahertz variety.

If they show up as they should on formal scans, presumably the guards would then select you for a direct personal screening, and wouldn't the use of such protections would have to be considered highly sinister?

But the products are an entertaining selection of "light-weight lead-free radiation protection garments" a perfect gift for the more paranoid of your pals. Try the  Scanner Radiation Armour T-shirts, and "Blocking Undies".

Glow-in-the-dark gifts

Some are specifically offered as gifts, such as the "Flying Pantie Woman's Brief Ovary Protector PLUS fig leaf "  and recommended for daily wear to protect against natural background radiation. Maybe it'd be wiser to avoid living in a nuclear waste dump ?  I'm trying to picture the appearance of these "flying pantie women" which sound like a new variety of super-hero.

The products are available in "fun assorted pastel colours": do you really find colours fun? You poor thing!

There are flower-shaped radiation protection "pasties" to insert in your bra (sorry, I keep thinking of Cornish pasties, which would probably be much less wholesome).

There are Boys boxer shorts with a strategically placed radiation shield shaped as a fig leaf, which glows in the dark! Now why, I wonder?  Are you supposed to drop your pants in the cinema and earn the admiration of others?  Or just sit in the dark, in your shorts, enjoying the faint glow of your fig leaf? 

Added to which, judging from the illustrations, some of the fig leaves are upside down, and wouldn't match most genitalia I've ever witnessed. Ah well, nobody's perfect.

(Professor M.A. Simpson, aka CyberShrink, September 2012) 

(Reference: Terahertz Scanners, Drugs, and Shoes)

Read more:

Airport scanner safety remains controversial

Weird things found in airport security




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