U.S. Government to Deploy Laser Technology for Searching People

CBS and Gizmodo are reporting that the Department of Homeland Security has developed a new device which uses laser-based scanning technology to search people for traces of “explosives, dangerous chemicals, or bioweapons.” Explosive and narcotics residue detection is certainly nothing new, but the ability to detect it from 164-feet away and without physical contact is nearly unprecedented in law enforcement investigation.

Developed by the private tech company In-Q-Tel, nicknamed the “Wizards of Langley,” the Picosecond Programmable Laser (PPL) is leaps and bounds ahead of the x-ray machines, millimeter wave scanners, and residue detectors the TSA currently uses in airports across the country. In contrast to the current models, which all require either direct contact or extremely close proximity to the subjects, this new device works:

by blasting its target with lasers which vibrate molecules that are then read by the machine that determine what substances a person has been exposed to. This could be Semtex explosives or the bacon and egg sandwich they had for breakfast that morning.


In true Homeland Security form, this new technology offers relatively little for the war on terror. However, it does provide law enforcement with a dangerous new tool to circumvent the Fourth Amendment and freely search citizens for anything and everything in the name of security. For example, the PPL can detect an individual’s adrenaline levels, use of prescription drugs or medical marijuana, and even tell you if they recently had a cigarette.

If that weren’t bad enough, there are reports that the "data collected by these devices can even be tagged to your identity so that the government compiles a database of which chemicals were detected on you at each location, for each day of your life.” And what’s to then prevent the Government from sharing this information with, say, your health insurance carrier or employer?

There are already plans to “widely deploy [the PPL] across airports, roadside checkpoints, sports stadiums and anywhere else the government wants to surveil the public.” This raises seriously troubling questions about the Government’s ability to conduct searches without cause.

The good news is that there is some precedent to curtail the use of such a device in certain situations, like on DUI stops or home searches – see, e.g. Kyllo v. United States (thermal imaging of a home to detect heat consistent with marijuana grow operation was a search for Fourth Amendment purposes). However the current trend of weakening constitutional rights in the name of security does not bode well for the champions of liberty in this battle.

Look for PPL’s to be in an airport near you starting in 2013.

Note: Nicolas M. Geman is a DUI & Criminal Defense lawyer in Denver, Colorado. You may know him by his alias, the TL Kid.

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  • Display: Sort:
    The 4th Amendment is dead (5.00 / 2) (#2)
    by Romberry on Sun Jul 15, 2012 at 01:55:14 AM EST
    Long live the 4th Amendment:

    The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

    Hate to sound all conspiracy theorist, but is the Constitution effectively suspended? I know that people pay lip service to the Constitution, but it seems that at every turn, appeals to things like supposed safety, necessity and expedience are being used as "arguments" to trump it.

    Welcome to the United States of Dystopia.

    The challenge is to develop -- and persuade (none / 0) (#6)
    by Peter G on Sun Jul 15, 2012 at 05:35:33 PM EST
    the courts to adopt -- a theory of the Fourth Amendment for the present technological age, but which is true to the objectives, philosophy and language of the Amendment itself.  I wrote an article on this in 1984, as many others have as well. Brandeis noted the problem in his famous 1928 dissent in Olmstead. It is obviously a serious problem in Constitutional theory that has been and remains highly problematic.  However, reports of the death of the Fourth Amendment, in my opinion, have always been and are still "greatly exaggerated."

    Really? (none / 0) (#13)
    by Romberry on Tue Jul 17, 2012 at 03:42:27 AM EST
    Great exaggerated? Warrantless wiretaps? The Binney declaration? No, not exaggerated. Can't begin to understand the motive behind minimizing what is happening.

    Banana (none / 0) (#1)
    by koshembos on Sun Jul 15, 2012 at 12:14:19 AM EST
    Every banana republic needs a good policing apparatus. Why should we be any different?

    It is a reasonable threat.... (none / 0) (#3)
    by heidelja on Sun Jul 15, 2012 at 07:33:23 AM EST
    ...the Government with Court blessing could share this information gathered by PPL technology contained in another secret Homeland Security database per here1. Unfortunately "homeland security" is not about protecting the Bill of Rights, as ones might suggest it does if "protecting" the Constitution.

    As protection from threats go, anyone else hear via ABC (probably) how many British troops will be "on guard" in London for the Olympics versus the number deployed in Afghanistan? Did I hear correctly the numbers were something like 17,000 in London versus 8,000 in Afghanistan? These sources here2 and here3 support this netwrok reporting.

    So with these kinds of staggering numbers deemed necessary to watch over a homeland from the threat of 20-30 "terrorists," crazed bureaucrats have little trouble making an economoc justification to sell out citizens protective rights from "unreasonable search" garnered from the meshing of advanced technologies.

    Well, how many soldiers do you think (none / 0) (#4)
    by jimakaPPJ on Sun Jul 15, 2012 at 08:20:42 AM EST
    is needed to provide security at the Olympics?

    If you go out in public... (none / 0) (#5)
    by unitron on Sun Jul 15, 2012 at 02:28:06 PM EST
    ...I don't think you can legally stop the government or anybody else from being able to see you if there's sunlight bouncing off of you and nothing in between to block that light.

    You can't get a court order that says when you go out in public everyone has to avert their eyes.

    The question becomes, can the government or some other party legally direct and emit radiation at you other than sunlight.

    (sunlight being just another form of electro-magnetic radiation)

    If so, what kind and how much, and under what circumstances?

    The right of the people (5.00 / 2) (#9)
    by Rojas on Sun Jul 15, 2012 at 06:15:43 PM EST
    to be secure in their persons, .....
    against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized

    What if we all (none / 0) (#7)
    by Zorba on Sun Jul 15, 2012 at 05:51:14 PM EST
    Men as well as women, start wearing burqas in public?  They may be able to tell what we ate, our mess, our adrenaline levels, etc, but I don't think that facial recognition software would work too well with full burqas, so they wouldn't know to whom the data belonged.

    Let's take that another step and all (5.00 / 3) (#8)
    by caseyOR on Sun Jul 15, 2012 at 06:01:19 PM EST
    wear lead lined burkas. Would that stop the lasers?

    The question is (none / 0) (#10)
    by jimakaPPJ on Sun Jul 15, 2012 at 08:05:11 PM EST
    has the person been "searched" anymore than if a dog sniffed something, or if the person was just recognized as a person believed to be carrying explosives and detained.

    And if the Feds get a search warrant based on the results and then do a physical search, wouldn't that be legal?

    Maybe I'm being too trusting but someone aiming a laser at me doesn't seem too intrusive... Of course I can see Michelle's minions using the device to tell if I consumed an unauthorized Big Mac...


    Or the Entire Republican Party Minions... (5.00 / 2) (#12)
    by ScottW714 on Mon Jul 16, 2012 at 12:20:04 PM EST
    ...using lasers to see if someone smoked weed last night.

    The problem I have, is if they want to physically search they need a warrant.  The warrant isn't because of the contact, that incidental, the warrant is for the search.  

    Now they think because they aren't contacting me, all is cool.  It's not about you not caring, it's about a GD amendment that says they can not do it, and them thinking because they aren't physically touching me, it's not a search.  I care, and I don't give a F it the guy next to me has a bomb, I don't want lasers pointed in my direction gathering what I consider the most private parts of my life without a Constitutionally ensured warrant.

    And it's nothing like a dog who's gathering information to either yes or no of a stranger, not a detailed analysis of every molecule emanating from my body instantly linked to me, specifically, and surely being recoded to some master database.

    I am tired of the willy nillies so carelessly giving up our rights in the name of 'safety'.  Jim, BF is addressing you, "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."


    You have some weird standards (5.00 / 2) (#14)
    by Romberry on Tue Jul 17, 2012 at 03:45:50 AM EST
    You're a person who seems to trust the government to do essentially nothing right...except when it comes to violating basic constitutional protections and liberties, in which case you seem to trust the government implicitly.

    We're headed towards an Orwellian surveillance state. At what point do you stop trusting?


    Or a Mexican Big Mac (none / 0) (#11)
    by NYShooter on Sun Jul 15, 2012 at 08:22:07 PM EST
    tightly rolled and wrapped:)