Paranoia Will Destroy Ya: Picosecond Laser Spectroscopy

Seen this story from Gizmodo that the TSA is rolling out a secret new scanner that can completely detail everything about you from 164 feet away??!!!Eleven+y one111??

Not coming soon to every airport or street corner you can think of.

Sure you have—it’s been on Rush already, and our very own dear Emily Grace asked us about it. Of course, Ms. Emily Grace is smart enough to suspect this might be something you can smell from 164 feet away from a horse bottom, and asked us to investigate.

Premise: Gizmodo has this rambling story about some new-fangled laser-based molecular scanner that some CIA-backed spook-group called In-Q-Tel is recommending for the Department of Homeland Security that will go into airports, and will be able to quickly (so quickly that it could do everyone in less time than it currently takes to do random spot checks), identify explsives, bioweapons, or even penetrate clothing to detect the presence of drugs or other items, or even, in the author’s words, “what you had for breakfast.”

So quick is this device is that it can measure this information up to 50 meters (there’s where the 164-feet come in) in picoseconds. Yes, emphasis in the original. The author goes on to a paranoid rant that this is truly the end of privacy as you know it! Lasers, put everywhere, can study you to any degree:

In other words, these portable, incredibly precise molecular-level scanning devices will be cascading lasers across your body as you walk from the bathroom to the soda machine at the airport and instantly reporting and storing a detailed breakdown of your person, in search of certain “molecular tags”.

Going well beyond eavesdropping, it seems quite possible that U.S. government plans on recording molecular data on travelers without their consent, or even knowledge that it’s possible—a scary thought. While the medical uses could revolutionize the way doctors diagnose illness, and any technology that could replace an aggressive pat-down is tempting, there’s a potential dark side to this implementation, and we need to shine some light on it before it’s implemented.


Your first clue is that the author is an anonymous expert in renewable energy solutions. No, he is not an expert in optics, physics, engineering, security, air travel, homeland security, or any of the other nouns he uses in the article. Apparently he is into converting waste products to fuel sources. Tip: an anonymous person who is not an expert in a subject may have his competence called into question. It is possible he doesn’t know jack.

Note too the conflation of DHS with the CIA and the TSA. These are all separate government entities, any of whom will be first to tell you they don’t care for the other two at all.

In-Q-Tel is indeed a real company, and is very public about their relationship with the CIA. The CIA suggested years ago (Clinton-era) that a private Skunk Works would probably be more effective at discovering new intelligence gathering capabilities than the government would, and suggested a private company would lower costs by using existing technologies rather than proposing billion dollar studies. IQT is more than open about the fact they like the technologies produced by another company called Genia. Note the Gizmodo article’s citation provides no verification that In-Q-Tel is creating a super laser for the DHS. Merely that they intend to use Genia Photonics’ products.

Genia Photonics is a commercial manufacturer who makes all sorts of laser equipment for biomedical research, scientific research, materials handling, and so on. They are especially good at making lasers that work as spectrometers: you use a laser to burn a little bit of a substance; the light that comes out of the fire can be broken down to discover what it’s made out of.

For example, a new metal alloy can be tested to see what its components are, and in what proportions. This can verify quality of manufacturing, whether patents have been infringed, or simple analysis to see if less expensive metals can produce the same strength, and so on. The point is that millions of laser spectrometers are in use all over the planet.

So what about this super laser? Genia Photonics makes a product that is a picosecond laser spectrometer. Contrary to the poopsmith’s non-expert opinion, this device cannot perform an analysis in a picosecond (a trillionth of a second). A picosecond laser flashes a light on and off once per picosecond. That’s it. It doesn’t perform an analysis of anything in 1 picosecond.

To give you some idea, picosecond lasers are used every day for tattoo removal. How long a picosecond laser spectrometer takes to perform an anlaysis of a substance depends on the nature of the substance and how much you’re testing. To put it another way, getting a 100 megabit network card in your PC doesn’t mean you can receive a 100 MB video clip in eight seconds. You may have noticed it takes a while.

Incidentally, Genia Photonics has also published a white paper that discusses how a laser spectrometer could be used to detect explosives from a safe distance away without detonating the explosive. So, yeah, the DHS might want to attach a single mode fiber optic cable to a questionable substance and then get their people back to safety. Using a spectrometer, they can burn a piece of the explosive so small—in about a minute—that they can determine what the component molecules are without generating enough heat to detonate the package.

The DHS, as well as thousands of other law enforcement agencies, are using laser spectrometers already for this purpose. The point of the white paper is that a highly portable version can be used to work up to 50 meters away from the main laser source. Fiber optics then allow the technicians to study the suspicious substance from thousands of feet away.

Could this technology be used in an airport to identify what people are carrying? [We remind you, the TSA has not been involved with DHS or the CIA on this subject, but is an agency that uses other types of Genia Photonics lasers to study potentially dangerous substances to determine what they are.] Well, you would need to immerse the person in controlled space, and then burn off whole pieces of their clothing, the contents of their pockets, their skin, their internal organs, and a lot more to do even a portion of what the Gizmodo article claims.

Because a spectrometer is ultimately stupid: it only knows what it burns. To know everything about a person, you would need to burn the entire person to death. Otherwise, it will only tell what is in the specific molecules the laser is hitting. It could not, for example, tell you what is concealed in a plastic bottle—it could only tell you what molecules make up the outer surface of the plastic bottle. To find out what’s in the bottle, you would need to either open and tilt the bottle so the laser gets into it, or pour some of the contents out first. The laser has to hit it directly.

Are you seeing where this is going? It would take months to scan an entire body, and even then the results would be, um, unpleasant for the victim test subject.

Here is what happened.

Some paranoid society-hating nut, who appears to study how to convert poop to power, decides to get published but knows people will recognize his name and mark him either a hoaxer or a nutcase. [His emphasis on how it could be used to determine what illegal drugs are in the body makes one suspect whence this paranoia arises.]

He discovers that a company called In-Q-Tel was formed at the suggestion of the CIA. Therefore, they must be owned by the CIA. This same company (get it? Company?) has just inked some mysterious deal with Genia Photonics, who also sells something called laser spectrometers to the TSA and DHS. Obviously, the CIA is working with the DHS to get the TSA to use these things.

Turns out these spectrometers can analyze just about any substance and tell you what it is. And this Genia group has a small one that can work in a picosecond! And look here, on their website, is a white paper that discusses how this laser spectrosowhatever can be used from 50 meters away—say, 164 feet for you non-scientist people—in a highly portable form.

So the TSA is buying these portable scanners that can determine everything and anything in a picosecond and be used 164 feet away and are so small they could be concealed everywhere! My God! Imagine the possibilities!

And then he sold this crap to Gizmodo, who did about as much fact-checking as they usually do.

Conclusion: Horsecrap.

About The Czar of Muscovy

Божію Поспѣшествующею Милостію Мы, Дима Грозный Императоръ и Самодержецъ Всероссiйскiй, цѣсарь Московскiй. The Czar was born in the steppes of Russia in 1267, and was cheated out of total control of all Russia by upon the death of Boris Mikhailovich, who replaced Alexander Yaroslav Nevsky in 1263. However, in 1283, our Czar was passed over due to a clerical error and the rule of all Russia went to his second cousin Daniil (Даниил Александрович), whom Czar still resents. As a half-hearted apology, the Czar was awarded control over Muscovy, inconveniently located 5,000 miles away just outside Chicago. He now spends his time seething about this and writing about other stuff that bothers him.