Monday, January 28, 2013

The dangers of photonics

As I get ready to write the March "Photonics Applied: Defense & Security" feature article for Laser Focus World on whether terahertz scanners used at airports and in cargo facilities are really safe, I'm reminded that photonics has a darker, dangerous side. After all, laser weapons do exist, laser dazzlers can disable a human from a distance, fluorescent nanoparticle toxicity is still under investigation, pointing green lasers in aircraft cockpits is a punishable offense, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) roam the skies posing as birds and insects.

The dangers--whether real or media hype--are definitely in the public spotlight. Check out this alarmist video on YouTube about how the government plans to install "scanners" at airports and sporting events that can learn everything about you, from what you had for breakfast to identifying traces of explosives and narcotics (the video link is in case the video doesn't play in the space below due to some unforeseen Laser Focus World Blogger program glitch).

Real or hype? Unfortunately or not (depending on your conspiracy viewpoint), the claims are becoming quite real. Standoff molecular detection is real, and companies like Genia Photonics (Laval, QC, Canada) are developing picosecond programmable lasers and master oscillator power amplifier (MOPA) technologies used in coherent anti-Stokes Raman scattering (CARS) spectroscopy that are designed precisely for learning everything about the molecular makeup of a distant object.

If people think Facebook was designed for "data mining" its customers, CARS spectroscopy could certainly gather more data about your food likes and dislikes for a localized population than could any software program. And CARS doesn't lie; how many people on Facebook put in fake information specifically because they don't want to be "targeted". But is standoff detection really wrong? Personally, I think it could be beneficial because data mining could help decide, for example, which fast food restaurants or which Starbucks items should be prominent at the airport. But if I were to get a text telling me where I could grab my favorite Whopper sandwich when I land next at JFK, that might be a problem for me.

Privacy seems to be a thing of the past, and technology--much of it related to photonics and optics advances--has made population as well as individual monitoring possible. And are all of these wireless signals and lightwaves traversing our personal space safe and secure? Maybe there really is a link to cell phone use and cancer? Are the long-term effects of standoff detection well understood? I'm hoping to shed some light on the terahertz scanner safety issues in my next article, and will continue reporting on the possible dangers associated with the industry's seemingly innocuous photonics advances.

I used to think that out in the desert in the middle of nowhere, I was immune from "Big Brother is Watching" worries (not that I have anything to hide). But that dragonfly and tarantula hawk I saw the other day were just a little too mechanical looking and hung around just a little too long....

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