As we’ve already seen, researchers continue to make great strides fitting sensors to mobiles:
A network of cellphones fitted with radiation detectors could monitor cities for “dirty” bombs.
So say Andrew Longman and colleagues at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. They have equipped phones with detectors so small they add only an imperceptible weight to a regular smartphone, and just a few dollars to the cost. Readings from thousands of phones, plus their location, can be combined to produce a “radiation map” of a city, says Longman. “Every cellphone sold should be carrying a detector,” he says, to guard against terrorist bombs.
Sounds like a great idea, right?! And not just to ‘watch’ for dirty bombs, but they could also measure pollutants, poisons, gas leaks, etc. What better way to leverage consumer technology to provide benefits for everyone? A free, people-powered distributed network of mobile sniffers. Sure, they’d probably get better coverage in downtown and/or tech heavier regions, but eventually (as everyone upgrades) they’d provide a snapshot of most cities.
All cities but New York that is, if plans put forward by the Police and Mayor are accepted:
After 9/11, untold thousands of New Yorkers bought machines that detect traces of biological, chemical, and radiological weapons. But a lot of these machines didn’t work right, and when they registered false alarms, the police had to spend millions of dollars chasing bad leads and throwing the public into a state of raw panic.
OK, none of that has actually happened. But Richard Falkenrath, the NYPD’s deputy commissioner for counterterrorism, knows that it’s just a matter of time. That’s why he and Mayor Michael Bloomberg have asked the City Council to pass a law requiring anyone who wants to own such detectors to get a permit from the police first. And it’s not just devices to detect weaponized anthrax that they want the power to control, but those that detect everything from industrial pollutants to asbestos in shoddy apartments. Want to test for pollution in low-income neighborhoods with high rates of childhood asthma? Gotta ask the cops for permission. Why? So you “will not lead to excessive false alarms and unwarranted anxiety,” the first draft of the law states.
“There are currently no guidelines regulating the private acquisition of biological, chemical, and radiological detectors,” warned Falkenrath, adding that this law was suggested by officials within the Department of Homeland Security. “There are no consistent standards for the type of detectors used, no requirement that they be reported to the police department—or anyone else, for that matter—and no mechanism for coordinating these devices. . . . Our mutual goal is to prevent false alarms . . . by making sure we know where these detectors are located, and that they conform to standards of quality and reliability.”
Sounds like a pretty tenuous case to me. Surely there’d have been a rash of false alarms by now, if there was ever going to be; it’s been over six years since 9/11. This smells more like an issue of control, rather than of wasting police resources.
The Institute for the Future sums it up beautifully:
Futurists regularly talk about the potential for cheap environmental sensors to serve as tools for sustainable development, more efficient energy use, etc.; I’m not sure how many of us (or how many computer scientists, ecologists, and others) ever thought that it would make sense to have the police “know where these detectors are located, and that they conform to standards of quality and reliability,” any more than they would have a compelling interest in making sure all clocks and watches were accurately set.