The PJ Tatler

'Observation Without Limits' May Arrive in 2013

Imagine that you live in an apartment complex and your next-door neighbor occasionally smokes pot. You know nothing of his illicit ways but you walk by his open window on the way to a gun range as he’s a few minute into a smoke. You smell something but pay no attention to it. You fire rounds at the range for an hour or so, then drive to the airport. It’s a big weekend, and you’re flying out to Miami take in a game of the NBA finals, and as a Heat fan, you’re fired up and anxious at the same time.

At the airport, there is little TSA presence so you’re not worried about getting groped for no reason. Before you know what’s happening, you’ve been pulled aside into a small room and you’re being frisked and grilled by DEA and Homeland Security agents. The pot traces on your clothing and the gun residue on your hands, present even after you washed up pretty well at the gun range, combined with your elevated heart rate were all picked up by a hidden laser scanner. The agents swooped down on you demanding answers, treating you as if you’re guilty and possibly dangerous because of all the circumstantial evidence.

You miss your flight. You miss the game. You have to spend hours upon hours going over every detail of your life before the agents finally release you. You’ve been worked over mentally and had your freedom deprived temporarily while your integrity is questioned and even some of your family and friends were called in to vouch for you. Now both you and your family and friends are in some government database. You’re humiliated, out thousands of dollars, and you’ve accidentally become the reason for the SWAT drug bust going on in the apartment next door to yours. But through all of this sequence of harrowing events, you have broken no law, you had no intent to break any law. Of course the federal agents don’t reimburse you or even apologize. They were just following orders.

All of this may be just a year away, thanks to increasing government intrusiveness and a new bit of technology that’s in testing now.

The company that invented it, Genia Photonics, says that its laser scanner technology is able to “penetrate clothing and many other organic materials and offers spectroscopic information, especially for materials that impact safety such as explosives and pharmacological substances.” [PDF]

Formed in Montreal in 2009 by PhDs with specialties in lasers and fiber optics, Genia Photonics has 30 patents on this technology, claiming incredible biomedical and industrial applications—from identifying individual cancer cells in a real-time scan of a patient, to detecting trace amounts of harmful chemicals in sensitive manufacturing processes.

Meanwhile, In-Q-Tel states that “an important benefit of Genia Photonics’ implementation as compared to existing solutions is that the entire synchronized laser system is comprised in a single, robust and alignment-free unit that may be easily transported for use in many environments… This compact and robust laser has the ability to rapidly sweep wavelengths in any pattern and sequence.” [PDF]

So not only can they scan everyone. They would be able to do it everywhere: the subway, a traffic light, sports events… everywhere.

The machine is a mobile, rack-mountable system. It fires a laser to provide molecular-level feedback at distances of up to 50 meters in just picoseconds. For all intents and purposes, that means instantly.

The small, inconspicuous machine is attached to a computer running a program that will show the information in real time, from trace amounts of cocaine on your dollar bills to gunpowder residue on your shoes. Forget trying to sneak a bottle of water past security—they will be able to tell what you had for breakfast in an instant while you’re walking down the hallway.

It’s a cliche to compare everything to Big Brother, but this does seem an awful lot like the sort of thing Big Brother would do.