Monday, March 24, 2008

Detection: Advances and Weirdness

Two stories on the detection of harmful agents. First, good news from the Deseret Morning News, on the steady advance of detection equipment. A scientist from BYU has created a small, lightweight chemical detector. The project is in the pre-production stage:

The Guardion-7 chemical detector is a 28-pound portable device that can detect, without false positives and with exact specificity, a wide range of chemicals in fewer than five minutes...

The machine can detect everything from nerve agents to flammable accelerants used by arsonists, most explosives, toxic chemicals, drugs of abuse and organic compounds.

Tests for detecting nerve agents were done at Dugway Proving Grounds near Tooele. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency approved the machine's performance last month.
And from the "Weirdness" file, this one, in which U.S. Border Patrol discovered a radioactive cat speeding along a Seattle-area interstate:
The incident involved a U.S. Border Patrol agent who was monitoring [Interstate 5] for potential transport of a radiological “dirty bomb,” said agency official Joe Giuliano.

“Vehicle goes by at 70 mph,” Giuliano said last week during a meet on San Juan Island. “Agent is in the median, a good 80 feet away from the traffic. Signal went off and identified an isotope (in the passing car).”

The agent stopped and searched the car. “Turned out to be a cat with cancer that had undergone a radiological treatment three days earlier,” Giuliano said.
The columnist who broke the cat story asks, "What else is the government watching? Is it all too much?"

That's a reasonable question, but not the one I'm focused on.

Even if you set aside from any questions about privacy, is random sniffing of roadways an effective way of detecting potential threats? Even the agent involved in the cat-detection scenario said that the chance of catching a terrorist was "a billion to one."

Is this the best way for border agents to spend their time and resources? (He asked rhetorically.)

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