Here’s a prediction for the year 2032:

The US Department of Homeland Security has obtained a "new laser-based molecular scanner" that can be "fired from 164 feet (50 meters) away." The scanning technology is able to "penetrate clothing and many other organic materials and offers spectroscopic information, especially for materials that impact safety such as explosives and pharmacological substances." In other words the authorities will have the power to "instantly know everything about your body, clothes, and luggage."

Actually there’s one thing wrong with this scenario – the date. According to a report on the Gizmodo website, this technology isn’t twenty years off, but rather something that the US Department of Homeland Security could have in place "within the next year or two": 

  • "From traces of drugs or gun powder on your clothes to what you had for breakfast to the adrenaline level in your body—agents will be able to get any information they want without even touching you… And without you knowing it…" 
  • "Their plan is to install this molecular-level scanning in airports and border crossings all across the United States. The official, stated goal of this arrangement is to be able to quickly identify explosives, dangerous chemicals, or bioweapons at a distance. 
  • "The machine is ten million times faster—and one million times more sensitive—than any currently available system. That means that it can be used systematically on everyone passing through airport security, not just suspect or randomly sampled people." 

We sometimes forget that crime – especially acquisitive crime – takes place within a technological context that has a fundamental impact on the balance of risk and reward. Under New Labour, ministers were forever drawing attention to the downward trend in crime, as if Tony Blair’s famous pledge on crime and its causes had somehow healed our broken society. The role of increasingly ubiquitous anti-theft technologies, from car alarms to CCTV cameras, was conveniently ignored.

Conservatives too can fall into the same trap, focusing all our attention on things like police numbers and sentencing policy, while not giving enough thought to the way that technology is likely to transform law and order issues over the coming years.

Molecular scanners are a case in point. If the use of such systems becomes widespread the assumptions that underpin the debate on issues like drugs policy will change completely. We need to think through the implications for what might become possible, but also for what – on privacy grounds – should be prohibited: 

  • "…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." 

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