Two years ago, the Department of Homeland Security stepped up its campaign to install controversial body scanners at airports nationwide. At the time, the agency claimed the machines could spot all sorts of hidden weapons and contraband. Today, more than 700 of the imagers are in place at 180 airports. But the so-called “naked” scanners may not be quite as all-seeing as they were originally billed to be. Quietly, DHS has called in the Pentagon’s premier research agency to help develop a new generation of imagers that are faster, smaller, more precise, and less prone to hacking.
It’s a bit of a shift for Darpa, which is usually asked to tackle the military’s toughest research problems: machines that can think, satellites that can assemble themselves in space, networks that can’t be pwned. And it underlies just how difficult it can be to quickly screen millions and millions of people for a few concealed threats.
In an announcement published Monday, the DHS and Darpa indicated that the research for improved body scanners will focus on two main features. The first is defined as “real-time utilization of compressive measurement techniques.” Its benefits will be faster acquisition of images with fewer samples, scanners equipped with less hardware and, most importantly, more precise and reliable detection with “reduced probability of false alarm.”
“The research seeks to identify novel signatures distinct from those typically employed in conventional X-ray tomography systems and multi-view dual energy projection scans,” the agencies explain.
The second focus will be on secure memory chips. These will have to be “hack-proof” chips with “high-levels of functionality … for low-cost, reduced power consumption and increased reliability.” The DSH and Darpa want high-speed chips, with random access times “on the order of 10 ns [nanoseconds].” They should also have “extremely high-endurance,” which would allow for “near unlimited wear for write, read, and erase cycles.” To be really un-hackable, they should be resistant to off-line security attacks as well. Stored data shouldn’t be readable with powerful devices like electron or atomic force microscopes.