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New Explosive Detection Tech 173

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the but-can-it-reduce-the-groping dept.
cruci writes to tell us Yahoo! is reporting that a New Zealand company, Syft, has developed a new way to detect many different kinds of explosives (and their individual ingredients) in real time. Designed for what the company calls "photocopier simplicity", CEO Geoff Peck claims that the technology is ready to deploy immediately and is already deployed in some ports and hospitals. From the article: "The Voice100(TM) employs Selected Ion Flow Tube - Mass Spectrometry (SIFT-MS). While SIFT-MS has been in academic use for more than 20 years, Syft Technologies is the first company to offer a commercial instrument with the full discriminating analytical power of a laboratory-grade mass spectrometer."
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New Explosive Detection Tech

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  • to detect explosions in airports. It is easy to use. Anyone interested?
    • What's the point (Score:5, Interesting)

      by z0I!) (914679) on Wednesday August 16, 2006 @02:00PM (#15921661) Homepage
      IANAC (I am not a chemist) but this guy seems to make a pretty solid arguement: http://www.interesting-people.org/archives/interes ting-people/200608/msg00087.html [interesting-people.org]
      • by coscarart (522354)
        I have no problem with his argument, except from what I have read, the bad guys were going to mix the chemicals on the ground AFTER they had passed the initial security checkpoint but before they had boarded the plane. For example in the bathroom next to the Duty Free shop. Therefore his whole argument doesn't really hold up. They could mix the chemicals in the bathroom in glass bottles, and then transfer them into water bottles (or was it sports drink bottles?) and then detonate them on the planes. Other
      • From the link...
        Then of course there is the question of people smuggling explosives on
        board in their body cavities, so in addition to nudity, you need body
        cavity searches. That will, I'm sure, provide additional airport
        entertainment. By the way, if you really don't think a terrorist could
        smuggle enough explosives on board in their rectum to make a
        difference, you haven't been following how people in prison store
        their shivs and heroin.


        Puts a whole new spin on "blow it out your ass"...
      • by Denial93 (773403) on Wednesday August 16, 2006 @03:27PM (#15922283)
        Don't forget the whole accusation is based on Pakistani intelligence interrogations - yes they do have an interested in reporting there are terrorist attacks planned, yes they do torture, and yes that does sparkle the imagination of the tortured. There is, from what little information there was in the press releases, the serious possibility this whole panic is based on nothing but rumor and the ideas of someone who saw Die Hard With A Vengeance and learned there are liquids that become explosive when you mix them.

        Many of you will probably already know that the timing of the "bust" was carefully planned between Bush and Blair to coincide with a vote of no confidence planned against Blair on the same day.

        In a very similar way, Syrian intelligence has been known to produce extremely convenient intelligence. They were the guys who said Al-Zarqawi was in the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq - and sole proof of the Saddam-Terrorism connection - in the beginning of 2003, when Al-Zarqawi was neither a leader, nor an Al-Qaeda member, nor in Iraq.

        The above is not off topic, but means there is no reason to be surprised when the whole story is implausible. It also means there is no reason to be surprised that Scotland Yard and all involved intelligence services, despite the knowledge of their weapon experts, fail to announce the plan was nonsensical.
        • Well, it was based on British surveillance as well, but you're right the whole thing is beginning to look fishy. First off, the idea of liquid explosives is not new. Eleven years ago the Bojinka [wikipedia.org] plot tested their use. Second, British authorities claim that the theat was imminent, but some of the alleged terrorists didn't even have passports [blogs.com]. Third, to date, the police have not reported the discovery of any bombs or bomb-making supplies.
    • I'm not interested unless it detects these: http://img.2dehands.nl/f/normal/10427705-dell-lati tude-d600.jpg [2dehands.nl]
  • Tubes (Score:5, Funny)

    by p0tat03 (985078) on Wednesday August 16, 2006 @01:58PM (#15921653)

    "The Voice100(TM) employs Selected Ion Flow Tube..."

    It's a bunch of tubes I tell you!

    • It's a bunch of tubes I tell you!

      And this is funny, why?
    • Re:Tubes (Score:5, Interesting)

      by andrewman327 (635952) on Wednesday August 16, 2006 @02:05PM (#15921709) Homepage Journal
      Certainly not a truck bomb!


      Anyway, mass spectrometry [asms.org] is an interesting technology that works very very well in the lab. The question is how practical can they make this machine? How much does it cost? TFA talks about how terrorism is mega expesive, so I get the feeling that they are just trying to lessen the sticker shock. And as the saying goes, no matter how idiotproof they make the device, TSA will just make a better idiot.


      Fortunately (according to the manufacturer) this machine finds more than your run of the mill explosives, it can also find drugs:

      The instrument has been calibrated to identify narcotics, chemical warfare agents such as the nerve gas Sarin, toxic industrial chemicals, and peroxide-based explosives including TATP and HMTD, both used in the July 2005 London bombings.
      • Re:Tubes (Score:2, Interesting)

        by suggsjc (726146)
        One of my friends did research on a project similar to this. It is pretty awesome the level of accuracy that they could get from extremely small samples.

        I didn't RTFA, but from hearing what he said about it is that it can do the detection in a decent sized area (~1 sq. meter or so) pretty quickly (less than 10 sec). So, it could scan the area of a person + carry on in probably less than 20-30 seconds. If they did this right after you walked through the metal detectors, I doublt it would take that much
      • Using Mass-Spec to screen for explosives is like examining md5 hashes to screen for profanity.

        Sure, you can screen for hashes of piss or shit, but you also have to look for hashes of eat shit, shit., !shit, sHit, lalala shit haha, etc etc

        It is trivial for a trained chemist to modify a compound just enough so that the measured spectrum does not match any of the stored spectra.

        Even easier way is to mix some other stuff into your compound.

        While the detection fidelity might be increased by adding infrared spect
        • Using Mass-Spec to screen for explosives is like examining md5 hashes to screen for profanity.


          Oh no, it's far worse than that. It's more like examining word length to screen for profanity. Which is sort of possible if you use a variable-width font, but you are still going to get a lot of false positives. Emmission spectroscopy is more like the "hash" technique.
  • by Riding Spinners (994836) on Wednesday August 16, 2006 @02:00PM (#15921658)

    If you have these exquisitly sensitive machines that can detect even a few molecules of material, aren't they by the same token super-vulnerable to being attacked by "chaffing" or overloading?

    You have to look at the false positive and negative rates for detection. If you have a test that is 99.99% specific, it will still fail in practical use in an airport, as that means that 1 out of 10,000 people will come up positive. If you have a lot of people going through you will still have a big problem (London had over a million flights last year). This is the same issue as using automatic detection of terrorists – It's one thing to match/no match a known ID (e.g. biometric passport) to a person; it's another to match every passer by to every known terrorist.

    Going back to chemical detection: this level of sensitivity will mean that every person runs the risk of coming up positive eventually. This amounts probably about 100,000 people in the U.S., and lots more elsewhere in the world.

    • means that 1 out of 10,000 people will come up positive.

      So? Take each positive aside and check 'em! Where's the problem there?
      • AddressException said:

        So? Take each positive aside and check 'em! Where's the problem there?

        The problem is that, if Heathrow Airport has about 70,000,000 passengers per year (1,000,000 flights × 70 passengers per flight [just guessing on this!]), that we'll have 70,000 suspected terrorists a year. That's about 2000 searches a day.

        Something tells me that, despite how popular Al-Qaeda looks on television, that there aren't 2000 terrorists in an airport at any given time. See what I'm saying?

        • Something tells me that, despite how popular Al-Qaeda looks on television, that there aren't 2000 terrorists in an airport at any given time. See what I'm saying?

          OK - don't use the super sensitive machine and let *ONE* terrorist through. See what I'm saying?
          • That's how terrorism works. If one man can make an entire nation change their policy, then he's won.
          • by Riding Spinners (994836) on Wednesday August 16, 2006 @02:13PM (#15921760)

            AddressException said:

            OK - don't use the super sensitive machine and let *ONE* terrorist through.

            Nobody has found terrorists at any point in history with chemical analysis machines, and they've been in use for years (they can't detect a ceramic knife). The incident at Heathrow was taken care of by good old-fashioned detective work.

            Maybe you've lost your faith in the art of investigation, but I sure haven't. I have, however, lost my faith in having a civilized conversation with you on Slashdot. (mods: feel free to mod this down as "flamebait")

            • by Steve525 (236741) on Wednesday August 16, 2006 @02:35PM (#15921912)
              Nobody has found terrorists at any point in history with chemical analysis machines, and they've been in use for years (they can't detect a ceramic knife). The incident at Heathrow was taken care of by good old-fashioned detective work.

              You are correct that this detection methods are nearly useless by themselves. Any terrorist will know about them and figure out a way around them. However, the more hoops you make the terrorists jump through, the more likely your detectives will be able to find them.

              If it's really easy to hijack/blow up a plane, then any jerk can do it. If it doesn't take much planning for a terrorist to pull it off, your detectives will have hard time catching the terrorists during the planning stage. If, however, you need special planning overcome obstacles, your investigators have much more time to catch the terrorists while they do the research/recruitment to execute their plans. In addition, the harder you make it for the terrorists, the more likely they are to simply screw up and get caught.
            • Nobody has found terrorists at any point in history with chemical analysis machines, and they've been in use for years (they can't detect a ceramic knife).

              If *I* were going to organise a 9/11-style hijacking with guys taking over a plane with hand-to-hand combat, I'd get them all trained in flint knapping [wikipedia.org] and have them each carry on a couple of glass 'paperweights'.

              No need to have any visible weapon; just go to the toilet midflight and *make* a weapon out of glass ovoids.

              Theres a lot to be said for the old
            • by Jeremi (14640)
              Maybe you've lost your faith in the art of investigation, but I sure haven't


              Why must it be a case of either/or? Why not have both first-rate detective work and highly accurate chemical sensors? You have nothing to lose but your tax dollars.... ;^)

          • > OK - don't use the super sensitive machine and let *ONE* terrorist through. See what I'm saying?

            Yes. You're suggesting we use a system where we check 2000 people a day. You'll be checking a few people every minute, and by checking I mean looking through all their stuff, asking them questions etc. You'd probably need 20 people working all the time. And given that the components of explosive are stuff like sugar, hair spray etc, you'd have to limit precisely which components you look for, and then peop
            • >Yes. You're suggesting we use a system where we check 2000 people a day. You'll be
              >checking a few people every minute, and by checking I mean looking through all their
              >stuff, asking them questions etc. You'd probably need 20 people working all the time.
              >And given that the components of explosive are stuff like sugar, hair spray etc, you'd
              >have to limit precisely which components you look for, and then people will just make
              >bombs out of those things anyway.

              The vast majority of things that
          • I think 70 on a flight is a VERY low estimate... considering 747s can carry several hundred people. And there is no WAY the false positve rate will be that low in real life. As another poster commented ascitone (sp?) is the primary ingrediant in nailpolish remover, and can react with high concentration hydrogyn peroxide to make a powerfull explosive. So any and every woman who walks by this machene who has remoed their nailpolish in the last 24 hours will touch it off, shake hands with her and you might
            • Ideally, the results of this machine would not instantly set off the cavity search buzzer but would rather be sent to a human expert to be taken into account along with other factors when deciding whether or not a passenger deserves a more extensive examination.

              Ideally.
              • by Burlap (615181)
                the thing is... would a human be able to reliably make the distinction between a 25 year old woman who says she just removed her nailpolish that morning, and a 25 year old woman who says she just removed her nailpolish that morning and also has half a liter of acitone straped to the inside of her left thigh?
        • by Jere H (220274) <slashdot&jeremyhipp,com> on Wednesday August 16, 2006 @02:15PM (#15921774) Homepage
          Your math is off twice.
          70,000 / 365 is 200, not 2,000, which doesn't really matter because:

          70,000,000 * .01% is 7,000 searches per year, not 70,000.
          So it would still be about 20 per day. They already do more random searches per day than this.
        • The problem is that, if Heathrow Airport has about 70,000,000 passengers per year (1,000,000 flights × 70 passengers per flight [just guessing on this!]), that we'll have 70,000 suspected terrorists a year. That's about 2000 searches a day.

          Well, your math is off, based on the numbers provided. You have 99.9% accuracy (1 in 1 000 false positives), rather than 99.99% accuracy (1 in 10 000 false positives). Something tells me 200 searches per day isn't too much more than is already happening in many air
    • I am not intimately familiar with "Selected Ion Flow Tube" however I do have some MS experience and assume the "Selective Ion" part means they are scanning for a finite set of m/z values. MS is a highly sensitive technique but does not have false-positives, so long as you background correct and set a reasonable response threshold. This becomes exceedingly effective with multiple scans (scans can be done on the order of tens of milliseconds)

      The problem I see with this implementation, or any implementation
    • Mass spectrometers are much better than 99.99% accurate. Down to parts per billion is fairly common, and the pre Mass Spectrometer stage (gas, liquid chromatograph, or in this case, selected ion flow tube) manipulates out compounds you don't want to analyse. That doesn't mean you set the trigger level of the number of molecules at 1, or 10 molecules, you set it at a level which would indicate that there are quantities of explosives present.

      The nice thing about this tech is it's very fast compared to gcms or
  • Resonance cascade.
  • Here's a schematic [sift-ms.com]
    It also says that it can detect compounds in the ppb levels out of breath (in real time). What I am wondering is how large/portable this machine is. Could a baggage handler walk around with it and wand things, or would you need to put all the bags through the machine on a conveyor belt?
  • by skids (119237) on Wednesday August 16, 2006 @02:02PM (#15921681) Homepage
    Not the U.S. I think we made it adequately clear [google.com] that our DHS doesn't exist to improve homeland security, rather just to scare the citizenry.
    • DHS certainly proved what they can and can not do with the Katarina disaster. It appears to be a bloated bureaucracy with the only goal being the promotion of politcal agenda's. Not sure which is worse, a dozen disparate federal agencies that did not talk to each other but at least knew how to do their jobs or one monolithic incompetent bureaucracy.
    • If you'll notice, it's not the folks who are researching pure "explosives detection" who are making the advances, it's folks who have been working on all sorts of other tech (mostly in the private sector) who are getting things done.

      You want dramatic, practical scientific advances? Don't fund it with government money.

      Note that it was a New Zealand company, not the New Zealand government, in the article...

      • by Jeremi (14640)
        You want dramatic, practical scientific advances? Don't fund it with government money.


        The amusing thing about the above post is that it was composed using a computer, delivered via TCP/IP, and posted to a web site. At every step, the above post was made possible by technologies whose development was funded by government money.

  • by Tackhead (54550) on Wednesday August 16, 2006 @02:03PM (#15921693)
    > The instrument has been calibrated to identify narcotics, chemical warfare agents such as the nerve gas Sarin, toxic industrial chemicals, and peroxide-based explosives including TATP and HMTD, both used in the July 2005 London bombings.
    >
    >[...]
    >
    >The Voice100(TM) instrument's core feature is its ability to continuously detect and quantify the concentration of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) in whole air.

    In other words, if the bad guy's dumb enough to make his explosive before passing through the screening station, he gets picked up.

    But since hydrogen peroxide isn't an organic compound, Abdul walks up to the scanner and it says "Nothing to see here. Move along."

    And since acetone is a VOC, when Mohammed walks up to the scanner, the scanner screams bloody murder... which would be fine, except that it also probably screams bloody murder for every woman with a bottle of nail polish remover in her purse. So Mohammed gets told to move along, too.

    *blam*

    Airlines are like democracies: We have to destroy them to save them.

  • And how high will the fee that is added to the cost of a ticket going to be to pay for this?
    • How much will ticket prices go up when the airline has to replace blown up jets?
      • None, they're covered by insurance, and the chance of losing a plane is still extremely remote. I say it's already accounted for.
  • by nizo (81281) * on Wednesday August 16, 2006 @02:12PM (#15921751) Homepage Journal
    Try to light all suspicious materials on fire. Nice and cheap (all you need is some guy you pay minimum wage with a handheld lighter). For larger items, have a can of hairspray handy to use as a cheap flamethrower.
  • While we are at it, why don't we check athletes at the airport for doping drugs before they compete in important sporting events. Maybe take away their plane ticket if the detector smells the synthetics from their sweat glands.

    You know, kill two birds with one stone. Heck, I bet that this machine could establish paternity as well.
    • You know, kill two birds with one stone. Heck, I bet that this machine could establish paternity as well.

      Well, obviously, that's a great idea. "Mr. Smith, you must be a terrorist, because you state that the person you're traveling with is your daughter, but our security detector clearly shows that she is not." Oops.
  • oh, great! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anon-Admin (443764) on Wednesday August 16, 2006 @02:16PM (#15921780) Homepage Journal
    This technology, as well as some others I have seen, has a major problem. All the terrorists have to do is spend some time seeding the people in line with small amounts of powdered explosives. Make the detector go off on every one. The minimum wage security person decides the unit is broke; his almost minimum wage manager puts in the fix request which will take weeks. In the mean time, it is back to business as usual.

    This is a mess and a waist of time.

    Next you know, they will be selling them to your boss to check you as you come to work.

    Be careful, if the government can get it, the private sector can get it and they do not have to honnor your rights.
    • This technology, as well as some others I have seen, has a major problem. All the terrorists have to do is spend some time seeding the people in line with small amounts of powdered explosives. Make the detector go off on every one.

      How do you do that (seed people in line with small amounts of powder)? If you do that *at the airport*, you're going to get caught on surveillence video somewhere. The FBI will track you down.

      A more general point is worth making here: the terrorists aren't stupid, and, l

      • Na, a little potassium nitrate, Ammonium nitrate, or calcium nitrate in your pocket. Put hand in, rub on hand, walk around shacking hands, talking to people, tapping people on the shoulder, pushing there luggage out of the way, etc. We are only talking ppb here. It is not that hard to seed people with a small amount of a substance.

        The issue at the airport is not a technical issue. It is not that they do not have the equipment to do the job. It is that they do not want to pay the people. If they would pay th
    • by Jeremi (14640)
      The minimum wage security person


      Ah, I think here you've come across the real problem.

  • 1- High profile terror case/natural disaster/act of God has just occurred

    2- Previously unknown company proposes its bulletproof and cheap product which they claim have been proposing for years

    3- Get suckers to invest in your product by tapping into people's irrational fears that naturally follow 1-

    4- Profit!!!

    In this case, 1- is obviously the UK terror plot to blow up planes by smuggling explosives onto the plane (like that's gonna work, but whatever gets the thinkofthechildren crowd going)...

    • Hogwash, I say! You're just being irrational.

      Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to wear my anthrax-repellent dust mask while I clean out the commie-proof bomb shelter in my backyard. I think I left my anti-Halley's-Comet pills down there..
  • by pmancini (20121) <pmancini.yahoo@com> on Wednesday August 16, 2006 @02:25PM (#15921835) Homepage
    We should be detecting bombers not bombs. Bombs form a nearly endless variety. Bombers are an easier class of object to detect, I believe. The fact that the bombers try to hide the bombs on their person or in their carry on luggage suggests they they themselves don't fear the system's scruitiny. In the old days they had to figure out ways of getting the bomb on the aircraft without them being anywhere near it. How times have changed.
  • how about a detector that screens out people susceptible to claustrophobia and panic attacks, which could lead to passenger airplanes being diverted and escorted by fighter airplanes...?
  • Before anybody gets too excited, note that this is a Press Release from the Manufacturer of the device. Yahoo isn't "reporting" anything-- they are simply forwarding a Press Release from the PRNewswire.

    http://biz.yahoo.com/prnews/060816/lnw002.html?.v= 31 [yahoo.com]

    This company is certainly not the first company to promote an easy-to-use bomb detector, or to talk about how their product is better then the competitor's products.
  • Thinking "Plane go boom"!
  • So if you injure yourself changing your motor oil after fertilizing your yard, you're going to have a LOT of trouble at the emergency room.
  • by overshoot (39700)
    The TSA and equivalents are still doing PR instead of real screening because they know that there's no realistic way to do real screening against real threats. There are just too freaking many ways to do violence. It's telling that there aren't any serious "Red Teams" coming up with potential threats -- instead they just keep reacting to the latest ones the Bad Guys used and hope those same Bad Guys are too stupid to come up with any of the thousands that a freshman engineering student could write up in a
    • by man_ls (248470)
      They'd stop you from taking those things on a plane at the security checkpoint. Security is going to ask you about the xray-opaque cans and metal strips, get a lame excuse, and be told to either check them or throw them out, if they don't flat-out arrest you for trying to smuggle something.

      I'd think a TSA screener is smart enough to know "if you don't know what it is, don't let it onboard" even if this means that a few legitimate things are denied clearance. There's no reason someone needs to bring Mg strip
      • Security is going to ask you about the xray-opaque cans and metal strips, get a lame excuse, and be told to either check them or throw them out, if they don't flat-out arrest you for trying to smuggle something.

        You're making my point: the whole process assumes that the Bad Guys are so stupid that they're going to bring their thermite onboard as a jar of metallic powder, metallic paste (complete with nitrate igniter), or some such. Sheesh.

        In case you haven't noticed, any (large) number of ordinary ite

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 16, 2006 @03:12PM (#15922156)
    I work in a chemistry lab where we regularly synthesis small quantities of explosives. Last weekend I took a flight and (very stupidly) wore the same shoes that I normally wear to work. They swabbed my shoes down and passed me through without a second glance. It didn't occur to me until after I was through security that there was surely some trace amount of explosives on my shoes that should have been detectable. Upon further reflection I realized that the detector was probably only set to look for a few certain common explosives, and the explosive compounds that we work with in my lab are relatively esoteric.

    I think that the very narrow specificity of these machines is a major problem. You might be able to detect the 20 most common explosives, but it would be trivially easy for any competent organic chemist to come up with a new explosive that the detector wouldn't be looking for. Perhaps the detectors that we have now look for nitroglycerin, but what about nitroglycerin with an extra methyl group hung off the end of the carbon chain? Or an ethyl group? Or an isopropyl group? What if instead of ammonium nitrate you used butyl-ammonium nitrate? Or butyl ammonium with some other, less common oxidizer like permanganate/perchlorate/whatever? Do you see my point? You could make a slight modification to almost any existing explosive and render it undetectable to these bomb scanners, because the scanners only look for things that they have been specifically trained to look for. They have no capability to actually examine the structure of a molecule and judge whether it's explosive or not. It's kind of like using a "knife detector" that has been set to look for the most common brands of knifes, when in fact you could sharpen almost anything into a knife with a little effort.
  • Designed for what the company calls "photocopier simplicity", CEO Geoff Peck claims that the technology is ready to deploy immediately and is already deployed in some ports and hospitals.

    Photocopier simplicity, eh? I can see it now: "Bomb Ingredient Jam in detection device. Please open Door 2A and follow the instructions on the label inside of the door to clear the jam." Don't forget to turn knob 4C three complete rotations! But it doesnt' matter how many compartments you open, there is *always* one m

  • Designed for what the company calls "photocopier simplicity"

    Great, so now we'll have to pry TSA goons' asses out of the machine after they decide to scan them.

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