Thursday, June 26, 2008

Sensitivity and Spam


If you're in a lab, it's nice to have a sensor or a reagent that's incredibly sensitive to trace amounts of a given compound. If you're in an airport screening line, this level of sensitivity is likely to create far more problems than it solves.

Designers of a new testing system boast that it's able to detect "an incredibly small quantity of material, as small as one dust-speck-sized particle weighing one trillionth of a gram, on an individual's clothing or baggage."

Which is exactly what we don't need. As I said in an earlier post, the primary practical result of deploying such a system would be that terrorists and practical jokers could "bring an airport almost to a standstill with an ounce or two of the right material." Intentionally overwhelming an airport with false positives would not only be globally disruptive and costly, but might also be the perfect prelude to an attack of a completely different type, for which no sensors are available.

Given its potential for rendering airport security useless or worse by overwhelming it with anti-information, it's quite appropriate that this system is called SPAMS (which stands for Single-Particle Aerosol Mass Spectrometry). Better yet, one of its capabilities is to assess multiple threats at once...so if all goes well, it should be simultaneously able to detect medical technicians, people who've handled pseudephedrine tablets, and people who've fertilized their lawns. And all in mere seconds. Take that, Osama bin Laden!

Here's my favorite part:

The instrument also could assist in screening people for disease....
While I don't really believe that this is anything more than technocratic boilerplate, I have to admire the perfect insularity of the concept. The real world, with its moribund airline industry, and its long lines of angry travelers, and its undertrained and overworked security personnel, and its baffling array of laws and lawyers, is so far away at this point that we may as well be in Heaven. Anyone who can tune out everyday life to this extent could just as easily transcend terrorism and disease, it seems to me, and probably wouldn't need anaesthetic for a root canal.

Even without this handy feature, I think that mass deployment of SPAMS would simply represent a progression of our national autoimmune disorder; our vulnerability to our own defenses increases with their sensitivity to apparent threats.

(Photo at top via The Anti-Advertising Agency.)

4 comments:

charley said...

as you do, or don't know, i've had to suck up every ounce of dignity i have and take a job with the tsa.

it's all a fuckn' game, and yet fundamentally i believe in the mission. the actual appropriate response to 9/11 was more diligent airport security. and i do believe it's better than what was.

and you said under trained, and overworked?

with the right modifications it could be pretty good. think fema under clinton vs. fema under bush.

Phila said...

it's all a fuckn' game, and yet fundamentally i believe in the mission. the actual appropriate response to 9/11 was more diligent airport security. and i do believe it's better than what was.

Didn't know you were with the TSA, charley! When did that happen?

I believe in airport security too, of course. Who doesn't? But you can't base it on machines like these, IMO. Or at least, not as a primary defense. It may be useful for all sorts of other things, but I'm very skeptical about its use as a screening device...among other things, I worry that it'll lead to less diligence, not more. And as a basic rule of thumb, if I can figure out ways to avoid or exploit a given system, I assume other people can, too.

Anyway, I should hope security is a lot better than it was, given the money we've thrown at the problem.

Cheryl Rofer said...

I think that mass deployment of SPAMS would simply represent a progression of our national autoimmune disorder; our vulnerability to our own defenses increases with their sensitivity to apparent threats.

Nice. Well done.

charley said...

if I can figure out ways to avoid or exploit a given system, I assume other people can, too.

hey, some one has to make money on this boondoggle and it sure ain't gonna be me.

of course i mostly agreed with your post.