Published July 12, 2012
A new laser system could detect traces of illegal drugs, spot an incendiary device, and even tell if you've been at the firing range, FoxNews.com has learned -- but contrary to reports, the system won't be at Chicago O'Hare or JFK anytime soon.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security denied a report on tech site Gizmodo.com that the laser detectors are imminent -- they won't be available until 2016 at the earliest, one government source said. In other words, though potentially useful, the lasers aren't close to deployment.
"We're always looking for new and innovative ways to detect threats and ensure the safety and security of the traveling public," DHS spokeswoman Nicole Stickel told FoxNews.com.
The laser system, which is being developed by Genia Photonics, uses a technique called laser spectroscopy that looks for trace elements of chemical compounds and radiation. The idea is to scan passengers at an airport checkpoint or border crossing, or maybe in a crowd at a sports event.
"Explosives detection technology is designed to provide early warning of evolving threats and augment current checkpoint technologies," Stickel said.
Stickel would not confirm reports connecting DHS to Genia. But Genia did announce late last year that it was working with quasi-governmental security company In-Q-Tel (which was chartered in 1999 at the request of the CIA) to develop the laser technology -- which can be fine-tuned to scan for a variety of substances -- with help from the U.S. government.
"We offer a number of tunable laser systems which are great sources for many spectroscopic applications," Joseph Salhany, the vice present of Genia Photonics, told FoxNews.com. "They are fast-tuning fiber-based laser sources that can be coupled or integrated with appropriate detection systems to create the desired scanning solution."
Salhany declined to elaborate on specific plans for how the lasers would be used, however, and In-Q-Tel declined to comment about the technology or any specific plans to work with Homeland Security.
Xicheng Zhang, a professor of lasers and optics at the University of Rochester, says the Genia system uses "terahertz" waveforms to detect explosives. Such signals cause a minor reaction in whatever they hit, passing through clothes, luggage and so on. An explosive device would cause a specific reaction that the system could trace.
But it could do much more than just detect bombs, however.
"Laser-based molecular scanners will enable TSA officials to identify explosives, dangerous chemicals and bioweapons on its passengers," security expert and attorney Mychal Wilson told FoxNews.com. "They can also detect drugs, alcohol, and your breakfast, lunch and dinner. Even your adrenaline level will be available for government analysis. Everything about your body will be available to the government and logged into a database."
Other experts raised a skeptical eyebrow at such a broad description of their capabilities.
Akos Vertes, a professor at George Washington University, developed a laser that can detect diseases on a molecular level for Protea Biosciences. He was critical of Gizmodo's reporting on the Genia Photonics laser, saying there is "no way" a laser could detect what you had for breakfast, and that it's unlikely a laser could detect whether you have a disease when you pass through an airport security checkpoint.
He doubts there will be one "super laser" than can do all of this detection on the fly at airports.
"Even if Genia Photonics can produce such a laser, the actual application for concealed weapon or explosive detection requires a lot more work," Vertes told FoxNews.com.
Wilson says we may have to "pick our poison" at the airport and choose whether to pass through a body scanner, receive a pat down, or walk through the new molecular scanner. Over the past few years, many passengers have taken issue with the full-body scanners and wondered about privacy rights.
"The new laser scanner may enable illegal search and seizures by the TSA under the Fourth Amendment," says Wilson. "Expectation of privacy at an airport will become a major issue."
Indeed, several experts questioned potential problems with a laser that scans you like Tom Cruise in "The Minority Report." Yet such tools are most definitely being studied; Vertes said there are "hundreds" of companies developing laser detection technologies for airports and border crossings, including Applied Spectra, Lasertechnik Berlin, Photon Machines, ThruVision Limited and SynView.
But is a laser scanner really that invasive? Charles Gannon, a professor and science-fiction author, said there is another "invasive" security technique currently being used at airports.
"The smell of dogs is insanely discriminatory, almost â€˜magical' in their ability to catch the scent of what should be an hermetically sealed object," he said. And no one ever complains about them.