2013-11-26

Co.Labs

Homeland Security's Latest Nuclear Defense System Could Be All of Us

Location-aware tech is rapidly becoming a part of our lives, but it could also turn each of us into an early warning threat-detection system for a government that’s always watching.



Location-based services are great for things like discounts at nearby restaurants, or a heads-up for traffic, or tracking a morning jog. But what if your phone could take action on your behalf in the event you drove past (say) a rogue nuclear weapon?

Last month on the U.S. government’s Federal Business Opportunities page, a Request for Information was posted for what’s being referred to as a Human Portable Tripwire system. The request serves as a sort of tentative inquiry--it’s not so much a positive indication that the federal government will move ahead with a project as it is an opportunity for private citizens to mentally prepare themselves to become de facto bomb sniffers.

Theoretically, the Human Portable Tripwire system would involve a wearable device that would passively scan for radiation and relay any discoveries of radioactive material back to Homeland Security via satellite phone or Internet connection. As the project calls for a passive system, it would function much like Near-Field Communication (NFC) or any other location-aware tech--once you turn it on, you don’t have to do anything else.

As Michael Peck writes in his breakdown of the ROI on Medium, it’s unclear whether the system is intended for public or Department of Homeland Security use:

This might be useful for security personnel patrolling an installation like a port or a large event like a major league football game. It could also mean that human tripwires could be detecting radiation as they walk the dog or take the train to work.

The project might smack of Cold War-era paranoia, but should the government move forward with the Human Tripwire Project, it wouldn’t necessarily be the first initiative in recent memory that sought to crowdsource national security.

Cell-All is an initiative that began in 2007 to find a way of incorporating chemical sensors into smartphones, which would warn users and automatically notify authorities if it detected a chemical threat. While the Human Tripwire project doesn’t really have anything to do with cell phones--yet--the principle is the same: a distributed approach toward identifying and responding to threats and emergencies that attempts to mitigate the potential for human error.

Whether either project will ever come to fruition remains to be seen, but in a time when Internet users are actively seeking out services that will help protect their privacy and information on how to do it in abundance, it’s hard to see any such initiative being met with anything other than unease.

[Image: Flickr user Steve Johnson]