Police testing long-range scanner to 'frisk' for guns on the street

The New York Police Department could soon be virtually frisking residents and visitors for concealed weapons from as far as 80 feet away – without their knowledge or consent.

The NYPD is developing a scanning device in conjunction with the Defense Department that currently is capable of scanning individuals from three or four feet away, the New York Daily News reported.

The scanner operates in the terahertz range, just under the microwave range. Terahertz waves pass through non-conducting material such as clothing but are blocked by guns and knives, both of which are made of metal, a conductive material. The result is a picture highlighting the gun (or other weapon) on an individual. NYPD plans to place the scanners in vehicles to scan surrounding areas.

An added benefit is that the waves can also scan through wood and brick walls, which are both nonconductive.

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, was on the fence as to whether the technology was a step forward or back for individual privacy rights, describing it as "both intriguing and worrisome," NBC New York reported.

"On the one hand, if technology like this worked as it was billed, New York City should see its stop-and-frisk rate drop by a half-million people a year. On the other hand, the ability to walk down the street free from a virtual police pat-down is a matter of privacy," she said. Most of NYPD’s physical frisks today – 88 percent – turn up nothing, according to the NYCLU

Some, however, expressed concern that the technology would lead to more unnecessary frisks. The scanner might not be able to distinguish between a weapon and a harmless metal object such as an iPod, for example. Lieberman asked the NYPD to release more information on the project and technology.

Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly downplayed Lieberman’s concerns, noting that the NYPD studied potential privacy concerns for three years and its lawyers “[didn’t] see constitutional issues here."

The idea of using terahertz waves to scan individuals for weapons is not new, nor is the NYPD's project the only one. Physicist Jingle Liu of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, lead author of a study published in Nature Photonics, is working on developing a terahertz scanner that could see through clothes from miles away, Wired reported in 2010.

The scanner will most likely be first used by the military to remotely detect roadside bombs, the publication reported. The main sources of funding are the Homeland Security Department and DOD. Other military projects include developing handheld versions of these scanners.

Remote frisking, however, is not the only technology being considered by the NYPD that is raising privacy concerns. The agency might also use drones to patrol the city, reported New York’s Gay City News in August 2011.

The newspaper published an e-mail to the Federal Aviation Administration purportedly from an unnamed detective in NYPD’s counterterrorism division. In the e-mail, obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request, the detective said the agency was investigating using drones as a law enforcement tool.

CBS New York reported that it may be inevitable that New York will be policed with drones.

“Drones aren’t that exotic anymore. Brookstone sells them,” NYPD spokesman Paul Browne said in the article. Browne did add that although the NYPD is considering the technology it hasn’t tested or deployed it yet.

About the Author

Kathleen Hickey is a freelance writer for GCN.

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