Homeland Security Developing Poison Sniffing Cellphones

The United States Department of Homeland Security is reportedly developing poison gas sniffing capabilities for embedding into cell phones.  This of course raises privacy concerns about future mandates requiring cellphones to “phone home” to government intelligence agencies, but the DHS claims that such a capability would be optional.  From PCMag:

…all manufacturers would need to do is embed a small chip into the phones–costing a little less than a dollar–that would detect toxic chemicals in the air while a user goes about his or her normal activities. Depending on the nature of the gas detected, the phone could alert a user with a vibration or a noise to indicate that unsafe activities are amiss and, “getting the heck out” should commence.

For more potent chemical activities–like a toxic gas attack–the phone would anonymously send a message back to a centralized service to report its findings. But here’s the fun part. Rather than raise the alarm and force authorities to take action, which would prove costly should numerous phones glitch and fire up an occasional false alarm, said reporting service would take into account the reports of phones across a larger geographic area.

For example, suppose a poisonous gas was released at a shopping mall. Instead of relying on one phone’s report of a problem–which may or may not be a true indication of what’s really going on–the service would look for correlated reports across a number of devices in a particular location. According to Physorg.com, the entire process of detection, reporting, and notification could take place in less than 60 seconds. And since all users equipped with chemical-sensing phones would be serving as their own walking sensors of-sorts, emergency responders could use the more comprehensive analysis to pinpoint exactly where they need to concentrate their efforts.

The privacy implications of having a phone that’s always in touch with a centralized reporting service–likely run through Homeland Security–might put some at bay. However, officials insist that the service would run on an opt-in basis and provide anonymity for submitting devices. That’s a pretty wide concession given how antithetical it is for a distributed reporting service to rely on users “opting in,” especially since said service relies on a wide range of submissions from its user base to operate.

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