‘X-ray vision’ may not be so far away…

Fascinating and disturbing news from the MIT Technology Review blog that a team of researchers appears to have cracked the problem of how to produce cheap, effective Terahertz Wave (TW) cameras and receivers. TW are found between infrared and microwave radiation, and produce what we called in A Report on the Surveillance Society, a ‘virtual strip search’, as they penetrate under layers of clothing but not much further, and can thus produce images of the body ‘stripped’ of clothing. Thus far, they’ve been used on an experimental basis in some airports and not really any further afield.

This is largely because of the way that TW waves have been detected up until now has basically been a bit of a kludge, a side-effect of another process. This has meant that TW equipment has been generally quite large and non-portable (amongst other things).

However one Michel Dyakonov of the University of Montpellier II in France has followed up theoretical work he did in the 1990s, with a new larger team, to show that tiny (nanoscale) ‘field effect transistors’ can – and they are still not quite sure how exactly – both produce and detect TW. The details are in Technology Review, but the crucial thing for those interested in surveillance is that:

  1. the output is ‘good enough for video’; and
  2. ‘they can be built into arrays using standard silicon CMOS technology’ which means small, cheap (and highly portable) equipment. This could be an add-on to standard video cameras.

I’m getting a genie-out-of-bottles feeling with this, but is it really as damaging to personal privacy as it feels? Does this really ‘reveal’ anything truly important? Or will it become something to which we rapidly become accustomed, and indeed with with which we quickly get bored? In some cultures, specially those that regard covering the body and modesty as being god-given, this is clearly going to present massive challenges to social and moral norms. It seems to me that there is also an immediate conflict with current constitutional and legal rights in several jurisdictions, not least the US Fourth Amendment right not to be subjected to warrantless searches and the European Convention Article Eight on the right to privacy.

But it seems that unless such a technology is banned, or at least particular commercial implementations, we’re about to cross another Rubicon almost before we’ve noticed it has happened. Ironically bans on technology can only really be effective in states where intensive surveillance and state control of behaviour is practiced. In other places, I am not sure banning can be effective even if it were desirable, as in reality, a ban simply means reserving the use of the technology to criminals, large corporations which can afford to flout laws, and the state.