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Rise of the Machines

Manny Jalonschi Sep 6, 2011

The September 11 attacks were a tragedy for the world and a boon for military companies. From aerial drones and iris scanners to hand-held lasers and duct tape, the drive to prevent terrorism — or at least our fear of it — has taken some sinister technological turns.

‘The Dazzler’
The Dazzler is a directed-energy weapon that shoots a high-powered laser to temporarily blind and disorient people. Hand-held models have a range of 1,000 feet while vehicle-mounted models have ranges exceeding 1.5 miles. The “vomit-inducing” gun is sold only to
police forces and private security contractors for around $1 million a pop, but using instructions widely available on the internet homemade versions can be built for less than $250 in parts.

Universal Forensics Extraction Device

Since 2008, Michigan police have used these machines to surreptitiously download phone book data, text messages, call history, passwords and SIM card data, according to the maker of the devices, Cellebrite. The Michigan ACLU has, to no avail, requested records on police use of the devices for more than three years. Besides a possible violation of the Fourth Amendment, the ACLU also wants to know if minorities are being disproportionately targeted.

The ‘Advanced Polygraph Kiosk’
Travelers entering the country would be placed in a kiosk, shown a series of pictures and have a laser measure blood pressure, a thermal camera take their body temperature and an eye tracker detect eye movement and pupil dilation. The purpose is to reveal when someone is especially stressed or fearful. While airports are interested in the technology to ferret out smugglers and undocumented immigrants, prototypes are considered “promising but flawed.”

Magnetic Visibility

A tinkered magnetic resonance imaging machine that “can peer through whatever container you’re carrying,” identifying specific chemical contents of gels and liquids. The technology, however, is easily confused by florescent ballasts, smart phones and even laptops capable of wi-fi service.

License Plate Recognition
Coordinated camera networks, in conjunction with data-sifting software, monitor for specific license plates. A similar system is being used to track vehicles in and out of the United States. Intended to help with “amber alerts” and tracking stolen cars, the system is also being used to nab drivers who have unpaid traffic tickets. Data is regularly stored for up to five years.

The Internet ‘Kill Switch’
Making bogus claims that hackers could open the floodgates of the Hoover Dam, some in Congress want to create a way of shutting off internet traffic – just like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak did in January. While the kill switch remains a goal of neocons like Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., multiple bills have failed to get out of committee. A similar technology is also being considered for cell phones.

‘The Porno Scanner’
As an alternative to “enhanced pat-downs,” whole-body imaging systems are being used to scan airport passengers for hidden explosives in the wake of the “underwear bomber” (one shudders to imagine the technology should an “urethra bomber” arise). While Rapiscan and SafeView scanning machines were originally only used for domestic passenger flights, the machines are now also being used by the military and in courthouses.
Technologies include backscatter X-rays that reveal anatomy in explicit detail, which critics call “a virtual strip search.” A public outcry has not slowed the Department of Homeland Security from moving to make the machines “the primary method of screening.” Despite government claims that the “scanned images cannot be stored or recorded” that’s precisely what’s been happening. One machine in Florida was found to have more than 35,000 images stored in it, and one model can record, store and transmit the images.

Surveillance Cameras

The U.S. surveillance camera industry revenue is estimated at $3.5 billion per year, and 30 million cameras have been installed nationwide in the last decade. States along the Mexican border are using extreme long-range cameras that claim ranges of more than 20 miles in daylight. Cities are also building vast surveillance networks, with more than 2,000 cameras in New York City’s “Ring of Steel.” Taking the American lead, countries like Syria and Bahrain are installing electronic surveillance networks along their borders as well as internally. And China has installed more than 10 million surveillance cameras in the last five years.

Terrorist Information Awareness Program
Spearheaded by DARPA starting in 2002, this program was aimed at compiling any “legally accessible” database, including public or private transaction records. The $20 million program quickly met resistance, with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., calling it “the most expansive, far-reaching surveillance program ever proposed.” Among creepier parts of the program is Human Identification at a Distance, which uses “activity-specific biometrics” such as gait- and facial-recognition technology to identify people in large crowds.

Duct Tape
On the eve of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Homeland Security Secretary Tom ridge urged Americans to buy plastic sheeting and duct tape to seal their homes in case of a biological or chemical weapons attack. While the plan was widely mocked, and considered utterly ineffective, retailers like Home Depot and Lowe’s benefitted from the panic-induced buying. Eight years later the government website ready.gov still recommends duct tape and plastic sheeting to create a “shelter-in-place.” In February 2005, two months after resigning his post, Ridge joined the board of Home Depot, Inc.

Arun Gupta contributed to this report.

Photo credits: The Dazzler, en.wikipedia; UFED, innocentjustice.org; Advanced Polygraph Kiosk, Rankin; Magnetic Visibility, ngweide.net; LPR, securitynewsdesk.com; Kill Switch, globalwarmingprevention.com; UAV, science.howstuffworks.com; Porno Scanner, opensecrets.org; Surveillance Cameras, northerntool.com; TIAP, freeallsoftwares.com; Duct Tape, platform21.nl.