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Homeland Security Wants Poison-Sniffing Cell Phones

Man on Cell Phone

AP Photo/Seth Wenig

Regardless of carrier or platform, let's be real for a second: Your cell phone can do a lot of things. From surfing the Internet, to serving as its own GPS device, to taking pictures and videos, to rocking out, a typical cell phone can really be thought of as the focal point of a number of handheld devices (and their awesome services).

Well, your cell phone might soon become its own canary as well. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security -- specifically, its Science and Technology Directorate division -- wants to help create 40 prototypes, by the end of this year, of cell phones that can detect toxic chemicals in the air just as easily as they can receive a call or send a text message.

The initiative, dubbed Cell-All, wouldn't allow participants to operate some kind of Star Trek-style tricorder scan for poisonous gas (unfortunately). According to Physorg.com, all manufacturers would need to do is embed a small chip into the phones -- costing a little less than a dollar -- that would detect toxic chemicals in the air while a user goes about his or her normal activities. Depending on the nature of the gas detected, the phone could alert a user with a vibration or a noise to indicate that unsafe activities are amiss and, "getting the heck out" should commence.

For more potent chemical activities -- like a toxic gas attack -- the phone would anonymously send a message back to a centralized service to report its findings. But here's the fun part. Rather than raise the alarm and force authorities to take action, which would prove costly should numerous phones glitch and fire up an occasional false alarm, said reporting service would take into account the reports of phones across a larger geographic area.

For example, suppose a poisonous gas was released at a shopping mall. Instead of relying on one phone's report of a problem -- which may or may not be a true indication of what's really going on -- the service would look for correlated reports across a number of devices in a particular location. According to Physorg.com, the entire process of detection, reporting, and notification could take place in less than 60 seconds. And since all users equipped with chemical-sensing phones would be serving as their own walking sensors of-sorts, emergency responders could use the more comprehensive analysis to pinpoint exactly where they need to concentrate their efforts.

The privacy implications of having a phone that's always in touch with a centralized reporting service -- likely run through Homeland Security -- might put some at bay. However, officials insist that the service would run on an opt-in basis and provide anonymity for submitting devices. That's a pretty wide concession given how antithetical it is for a distributed reporting service to rely on users "opting in," especially since said service relies on a wide range of submissions from its user base to operate.

Qualcomm, NASA, and Rhevision Technology are all banding together to work on the next step of the testing phase: proof of principle. As well, Homeland Security's Science and Technology arm is actively engaging the "big four" cell phone manufacturers -- Qualcomm, LG, Apple, and Samsung -- with research and development agreements in the hope that your phone, now your digital nose of-sorts, will one-day be able to save your life without you having to lift a finger.

Physorg.com writes, "To be sure, Cell-All's commercialization may take several years. Yet the goal seems eminently achievable: Just as Gates once envisioned a computer on every desk in every home, so [Cell-All program manager Stephen Dennis] envisions a chemical sensor in every cell phone in every pocket, purse or belt holster.

And if it's not already the case, says Dennis, 'Our smartphones may soon be smarter than we are.'"

For more technology news and reviews, see PCMag.com.