April 21st, 2010
02:00 PM ET

Security Brief: Cell phones to 'smell' biochem attack?

The Department of Homeland Security hopes new phones could sense chemicals in the air.

If you ever get caught up in a chemical or biological weapons attack, your cellphone may save your life. Or at least that’s the ambition of the Department of Homeland Security.

The Department’s science and technology team has begun talks with four cell-phone manufacturers on designing ‘nextgen’ phones that would be able to sense a wide variety of noxious chemical compounds in the air – and alert the user. The director of the “Cell-All” program at the DHS, Stephen Dennis, tells CNN that within a year, “We expect up to 80 prototype cell phones to be developed that can be then tested against various agents.”

The vision is to alert cell-phone users to all sorts of risks – from accidental gas leaks to a terror attack using poison gas. For example, if ammonia escaped from a train wreck, the gas would trigger an alert. The chip – at current prices – would cost as little as $1.

One of the technologies being examined is a porous silicon “nose” that is based on – amazingly - the beetle shell. Professor Michael Sailor at the University of California San Diego uses silicon to mimic the way a beetle’s complex shell produces iridescence. Sailor uses chemistry to give silicon particles a sponge-like structure. The particles’ pores are designed to recognize and sop up molecules of certain toxins. So these “artificial” noses can potentially detect scores of chemical compounds.

NASA is also involved – helping with the chemical sensing, and using technology designed for measuring air quality in the space program.

“They rethought the platform,” says Dennis, scaling it down to ‘nanosize.’

The application would go beyond warning the consumer. Dennis’ team is already consulting emergency service providers to see how phone alerts might be automatically fed to authorities. Dozens of alerts from multiple phones in one location would help responders quickly to assess the nature and extent of the threat. In technical jargon, this “crowd-sourcing” helps provide a more accurate read-out of the threat. (So for example if someone spilt some bleach at a laundromat, it would not translate into a major public emergency.) The alert process would take less than a minute – and that seems a lot more efficient than hundreds of panicked citizens dialing 911.

Imagine how useful such an application would have been had you been a Tokyo commuter on March 21 1995, when members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult released sarin gas in five coordinated attacks on the city’s subway. Eight people died; more than 5,000 were taken to hospitals.

Don’t expect the application to be ready tomorrow – the “Cell-All” folks acknowledge it could be several years before it is commercially available. The manufacturers involved have to grapple with design issues, power drain and other challenges. And the sensors have to be designed in such a way that the number of “false positives” is kept to a minimum. A lot of false alerts would not do anyone’s nerves much good.

The DHS stresses that the technology would be optional in phones and that data transmissions would be anonymous.

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Filed under: National security • Technology
soundoff (51 Responses)
  1. Richard S.

    The need for this is clear. After all, we cannot sit back and allow communist infiltration, communist indoctrination, communist subversion, and the international communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids! General Jack D. Ripper is allive and well and working at DHS.

    April 22, 2010 at 8:52 am | Report abuse |
  2. butlerbulldawg74

    sounds like more fear mongering from corporations and government to me.

    April 22, 2010 at 10:33 am | Report abuse |
  3. Victoria Moreland

    At the time of detection, it would be too late wouldn't it?

    April 22, 2010 at 10:35 am | Report abuse |
  4. Kiru

    Hehe. I spend the majority of my time at work in the middle of an excavation with petroleum contaminated soil surrounding me. I wouldn't like my phone to keep going off constantly. I hope there is an off option. I could totally see the government making these phones mandatory just by making them the only ones available to buy at retailers. Anything can be optional by law, but that doesn't mean the gov-ies need to make it easy to opt-out.

    I don't think the point is really to save the lives of those in the affected areas. I think it's more to prevent a problem from growing bigger.

    And in the case of a biological threat, it would be smarter to alert the authorities but not the cell phone user. Otherwise you'd get a bunch of panicked people fleeing the area when they might already be infected. That would just spread the disease. The authorities could set up a quarantine area and get everyone exposed possibly before they could leave the area.

    I also highly doubt this will be anonymous. It might not give your name directly to the local authorities but I'm sure there will be a unique identifier code cross-listed with a database of your name. The government would need to know who's been exposed to be able to quarantine them if necessary.

    April 22, 2010 at 10:50 am | Report abuse |
  5. Roger

    If I remember correctly the riots a number of years ago over financial policies were coordinated with cell phones and tear gas was used to disperse people. So, if you have your cell phone out and it picks up tear gas and phones it in the government can compile a list of those to arrest at their homes with no need to wade into a crowd and drag people out. It should be a useful tool and make things safer for the arresting officers.

    April 22, 2010 at 11:25 am | Report abuse |
  6. andrew

    @Savant and Richard S
    you two are quite moronic. Technology is much better then it was in the early cell days.
    Richard, honestly please tell me this was a joke..

    April 22, 2010 at 12:01 pm | Report abuse |
  7. shelby

    i think its just another way of the government being "big brother" only more discreetly i mean really the only real places that you mainly need to worry about their being biochem terrorists attacks would be places like new york, los angeles, and d.c..and if your already in the area of the toxins then its too late because your already inhaling it as your phone goes off.and not only that but with cell phones it sets off that spark or whatever which is exactly why they tell us not to talk on the phone or answer our cell phones at gas stations so if there is a flammable toxin in the air and your phone goes off doesnt that make it more dangerous?
    i see this idea being more trouble than its worth.and i agree with the comment on the government possibly trying to hide something and/or trying to keep us from thinking about it.i also agree with the comment about it becoming not so optional as DHS stresses because if those are the only kind of phones being manufactured and the american consumer generally changes phones every year or so then it would make other phones not only obselete but it would be forcing us to buy only those phones.its all ready bad enough that the government can know everything about us through our computers, the last thing we need is to give them a gps tracking system in our phones at all times.at this point the government is coming up with this idea solely to further control us which then we might as well be just like china or europe.its no different than AIDS, it was man made and it bit us in the ass,now the government figures why come up with a cure when they make so much money off of medication that people with AIDS pay for so they may have hope of living longer.the government doesnt care they just want to control us and make money in the process.

    April 22, 2010 at 12:42 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Danny

    The false positives with this as with the chem/bio detection gear is always going to be there. All agents have a molecular weight in which is how they are most often detected, and the false positives often occur with the similarities between the weights of similar sized compunds. The saturation and best judgement used by responders will aid in minimizing the problem with this. But as a precaution this is a start to help with the notification process to said responders and qualified individuals. But in case of an actual attack what are said individuals that are carrying it supposed to do? we need to build standards and an actual process on what exactly to do and where to go.

    The notification process is easy to understand but will be difficult to employ. Whether it be to any department of defense i.e the fire dept or state, they will need the gear to recieve these transmissions. another whole process to make the application and manage an update on the program. Training on these programs will needed to understand how to actually use it.

    April 22, 2010 at 10:51 pm | Report abuse |
  9. krehator

    Common sense is gone. It really is. If you phone can detect it, you are already exposed. Depending on what it is, even trace amounts could be fatal.

    What next, hide under you desk in case of nuclear war??? Wait, we already were told that.....

    April 22, 2010 at 11:34 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Bubba

    So if everyone in a few years will carry around a chemical sensing cellphone...just think about all the info that can be collected...image the following world...it could be a great boon to law enforcement to have a rat-nanny on your person.

    ...people& folks cooking up Meth with a celphone near by could be detected and ID'd and the police automatically respond to the silent alert because the position has been forwarded via the phones GPS...

    ...anyone that smokes weed or anything else and has a cellphone could automatically be reported to the government...LEO could be dispatched accordingly...

    ...fire a gun...well that phone to pick up traces and report time, location etc..

    Good for the government and maybe good for you...maybe not so good for privacy...

    April 23, 2010 at 12:16 am | Report abuse |
  11. Kevin

    5 dead, 5000 taken to hospitals in Tokyo. Great, now everyone wander out and look up how many of those 5000 reported to hospitals after hearing about the attack on the news. It was nothing less than a riot, made up of hypochodriacs and psychosomatic symptom bearers that thought they may have been near enough. They reported HOURS after the attack. The cell phones should allow us to flood and impair our newly reformed healthcare system and bring emergency services to a halt moments after a false positive. Bravo, morons.

    April 23, 2010 at 1:22 am | Report abuse |
  12. Mr. Roach

    oh here they go again... just thinking of ways to keep people in fear. Maybe, but just maybe... if we wouldn't drop so many bombs on that people in the middle east, perhaps they would leave us alone. Fear is a huge industry! Politicians love it!

    April 23, 2010 at 5:09 am | Report abuse |

    If you think about , This is not good. Basically tells us that Home Land security is not going to be there for us. You are on your own. These are some scary times!!!

    April 23, 2010 at 11:12 am | Report abuse |
  14. Gotcha

    I think you have to look at this technology at a different way. If you're in the area, you're going to get very sick or you're dead. I don't think this is an early warning for the people carrying the cell phones, but an alert for DHS.

    If this becomes the standard chip to go into all cell phones then sooner or later everyone will forget it's there. I think DHS is hoping the dumb terrorist will also forget about this chip, get the materials for WMD, and by handling the materials set off the chip to notify DHS. DHS will get the GPS of the cell phone(s) and bust culprits.

    April 24, 2010 at 8:24 am | Report abuse |
  15. Kana

    Another step closer to the government monitoring and track it's citizens. Already, A long as your cell phone is on it's sending\receiving signals from the closest towers. Having a radiological\chemical sensor in your phone doesn't realy help the owner, since you would already be effected. What it wil od is increas your paranoia and make you more dependant on the government tracking you.

    April 24, 2010 at 8:48 am | Report abuse |
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