Recognizing bogus explosive and drug detection technology



Bob Couttie, Maritime Accident Casebook, London, UK


Fake bomb and drug detection devices are finding their way into port and terminal facilities – here’s how to tell yours isn’t one of them

Ports are offered a bewildering array of products that claim to meet the ISPS code and today’s security demands to detect explosives, drugs and stowaways. One particular class of hand-held scanner on the market does not work. Such devices have been used in Iraq and Afghanistan with significant lack of success against bombers and have been responsible for deaths in Thailand.

A Chinese-made device is said to be in use in harbors in Belgium, by the Shekou Container Terminal in southeast China and Yangshan deep-water port in Shanghai, as well as Hong Kong’s Fire Department. Mexico’s PEMEX bought several similar devices in 2008 for its oil terminals.

Promotional literature for one ‘detector’ says: “The sheer number of containers entering a port makes other methods of detection for explosives inefficient. The XK-9 however, can quickly and categorically identify any containers that may have explosives present. Port security staff can then carry out further specific X-Ray and manual searches”. Unfortunately the XK-9 could do nothing of the sort. The British company that marketed the XK-9 has stopped selling it.

In at least one case, the GT200, the device was promoted around the world with the help of the UK government and the Royal Engineers.

A BBC Newsnight expose in mid-2010 led to a UK government ban on exports of the ADE651 to Iraq and Afghanistan. Sales continue unrestricted to other countries, however. The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office is reported to have issued alerts to governments that the devices do not work as advertised.

At last year’s International Carnahan Conference on Security Technology, Dale Murray of Sandia National Laboratories, who has tested several of these devices, told the delegates: “Rather than enhancing the security of police and military personnel, the reliance on these unproven and disproven devices is creating a sense of false security that is actually lowering the safety of frontline forces in places like Iraq and Afghanistan”.

In addition to Sandia National Laboratories, the FBI and the US Navy has tested and found them worthless, as has the UK’s Alford Technologies on behalf of the Royal Engineers. The US Department of Justice has warned against using this class of device. If such devices are lowering the safety of frontline US and UK military forces, then they are also creating hazards for ports, terminal facilities, security personnel, seafarers and the ships they sail on.

Double-blind trials show that they do not do what it says on the tin, or at least in the manufacturer’s literature. In most cases the Sandia tests were the first scientific tests carried out on the detectors – the manufacturers had not tested their product under controlled conditions.

They have various names and minor differences in operations. Most claim to detect almost anything at ranges of up to a kilometer, like the ADE651 and HEDD1, while others, like the DKL Lifeguard limit their claims to detecting human presence at a distance and under almost any conditions.

How to spot bogus devices

These devices are characterized by a swiveling telescopic radio antenna, which rotates towards a detected target. Manufacturers use a number of terms to explain how the devices function, from dielectrophoresis, electro-magnetic attraction, magnetoelectrostatic detection, magnetic resonance, and so on. In fact, the only ‘technology’ used is subconscious muscle movement by the operator, which causes the finely balanced radio antenna to point to where the operator thinks the target is. That alone makes these devices pointless; they are only of value if they respond when the operator does not know the location of the target, or even if a target is present.

The principle of dowsing is called ‘the ideomotor effect’. A bent welding rod or wire coat hanger is just as effective and accurate but more cost effective than the devices, which are often more than US$20,000 apiece.

Some of the more ‘sophisticated’ versions include cards that are supposed to tune the device to detect specifics, like certain explosives or drugs. Sometimes there is nothing actually in the cards; sometimes there is an RFID chip of the sort used in shop security tags to ensure that no one sneaks knickers out of the store. Most makers of these fraudulent devices don’t even go that far – the devices are actually empty inside.

Some companies selling the detectors merely market them without an understanding of how they are supposed to work.

The history of the wandering wands

There are two basic designs: the ‘swivel on a stick’, where the telescopic antenna is attached through a swivel to a handle or pistol grip; and the ‘phaser’, where the antenna is attached to a case that resembles the famous weapon from the Star Trek series.

Stick and Swivel

Granddaddy of the ‘stick and swivel’ device was the Quadro Tracker produced by the Quadro Corporation in the mid- 1990s. Originally designed to locate lost golf balls, it was sold to schools, local governments and law enforcement agencies to find drugs, guns, explosives and almost anything else one could think of.

FBI laboratories checked out the Quadro Tracker and declared it a fraud, and its manufacture, advertising or sale in the United States was banned. Quadro Corporation closed shop but the basic device inspired others such as the MOLE, Sniffex, SniffexPlus, HEDD1, GT200 and ADE 651, XK-9 among others. Some devices have electronic circuits that have no function and others are connected to boxes on belt-clips.

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