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EU Considering Sensors In Sewers To Detect Bomb-Makers 219

Posted by timothy
from the who-does-number-one-work-for? dept.
Nerval's Lobster writes "Security agencies in Europe have found a whole new way to identify and approach bombmakers and other potentially dangerous radicals. The only problem with the approach is that it stinks. Literally. Researchers in a European-Union funded project called Emphasis are developing chemical sensors that can be embedded in networks of underground sewage tunnels to sniff the air and phone home at the first hint of chemical residue from the manufacture of bombs. Using remote sensors might be effective because the liquid- and gas byproducts of bomb production – and manufacture of many drugs as well – leak, seep or are poured into sinks and toilets to get rid of the evidence, according to Hans Onnerud, an analytical chemist with the Swedish Defense Research Agency. With such a catchall underneath the city streets, and the chemical wherewithal to identify which smells belong to bombs or drugs and which belong to other things, it should be possible to keep a close watch on development of dangerous materials in a city without invading the homes of residents, Onnerud added. In fact, if sewer-sniffing technology had been in place in 2005, British authorities might have had a much easier time tracing the location of the bombers, or even detecting them ahead of time and stopping the London subway bomb attack that killed 54 people. Fumes from the bombs used in those attacks, which were assembled in a house in Leeds that had been turned into a compact bomb factory, were strong enough to kill plants in the garden. It's extremely likely they would have been detectable from the sewer as well, Onnerud said in a statement announcing Emphasis. The sensors developed for Emphasis are designed to detect chemical reagents produced by the breakdown of chemicals in bombs. Each sensor is a 10-centimeter-long electrode that can be submersed in sewer wastewater to look for ions of the right configuration."
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EU Considering Sensors In Sewers To Detect Bomb-Makers

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday November 02, 2013 @06:22PM (#45314473)

    Bomb attacks are so rare, wouldnâ(TM)t it be cheaper to compensate bomb victims after the fact than include expensive bomb-sniffing equipment in infrastructure upgrades up and down the land?

    • by jamesh (87723) on Saturday November 02, 2013 @06:47PM (#45314625)

      Bomb attacks are so rare, wouldnâ(TM)t it be cheaper to compensate bomb victims after the fact than include expensive bomb-sniffing equipment in infrastructure upgrades up and down the land?

      This, but not for reasons of financial cost. The price of living in a free society is that occasionally someone is going to get pissed off at the world and blow up spectators at a marathon or take a gun to a classroom of kiddies. It would be great if we could stop this, but if the only way of stopping it is to take away your freedom and allow the government to spy on its people then maybe the price is too high. And from a financial point of view, maybe the money would be better spent on education and help for people who need it.

      That said, this sounds like a cool idea from a technical point of view. I'm conflicted.

      • Is it really that hard to imagine there exists some middle ground?
        • Like, say, how it was a decade or two ago?

        • by mspohr (589790)

          ... you mean between the sewer and street level?

        • by jamesh (87723)

          Is it really that hard to imagine there exists some middle ground?

          Of course there is a middle ground. You decide how much of your freedom you are willing to give up to secure some temporary safety and then vote accordingly.

      • I don't see this as invasive, if it is used to monitor the quality of the sewage (yeah, that sounds funny) where pipes join together. If there was an indication of bomb or drug making activity, then more pooper snoopers could be temporarily installed upstream. At some point there would be a need for search warrants or something like that, but on the whole, the natural blending of waste products is going to be an adequate protection against invasion of privacy.

        Nobody is really going to know that you pigged

        • I don't see this as invasive, if it is used to monitor the quality of the sewage (yeah, that sounds funny) where pipes join together. If there was an indication of bomb or drug making activity, then more pooper snoopers could be temporarily installed upstream. At some point there would be a need for search warrants or something like that, but on the whole, the natural blending of waste products is going to be an adequate protection against invasion of privacy.

          Nobody is really going to know that you pigged out on burritos.

          I would think this would be an excellent way to identify meth houses, etc. While I would rather see all drugs made legal so they could be taxed and the profits would go out of the illicit drug trade, until that happens I would kind of like to see every damn meth factory on the left coast raided.

          Exactly. This isn't a targeted system, but its a good sieve for "something weird might be going on in this neighborhood".

          As the article notes, the London bombers killed all the plants in their garden from from the fumes of the manufacturing process. The problem is, no one had any additional evidence to think "hmm that's weird" and take a closer look.

        • "If there was an indication of bomb or drug making activity, then more pooper snoopers could be temporarily installed upstream."

          This would be trivial to defeat using slow release chemical cocktails placed in the sewers (which are easily accessible by the public) to give false positives at dozens of other locations.

          "I would think this would be an excellent way to identify meth houses"

          There are peer reviewed papers on this very topic (for identifying drug users and manufacturers). It's also been successfully

        • by F.Ultra (1673484)
          Yes, because those that make lots of money off those meth houses will just idly stand be and see their whole business go down the drain and will not implement any countermeasure at all, no sir!
    • by sumdumass (711423) on Saturday November 02, 2013 @07:00PM (#45314717) Journal

      It has been my experience that often governments do things because of something specific when all along they wanted to do it anyways.

      In other words, "bombs" probably is just a justification the public needs in order to allow this to happen. There are probably other reasons which wouldn't sound so acceptable if officially declared. Think about all the laws that get rammed through in the name of stopping terrorism but primarily end up being used to harass and prosecute drug users/dealers or something along other lines.

      • by geoskd (321194) on Saturday November 02, 2013 @07:10PM (#45314765)

        It has been my experience that often governments do things because of something specific when all along they wanted to do it anyways.

        In other words, "bombs" probably is just a justification the public needs in order to allow this to happen. There are probably other reasons which wouldn't sound so acceptable if officially declared. Think about all the laws that get rammed through in the name of stopping terrorism but primarily end up being used to harass and prosecute drug users/dealers or something along other lines.

        If you read between the lines, the real reason was spelled out in the summary. These things can be used to detect narcotics manufacturing as well as bomb making. The real reason is the wish to escalate the war on drugs, which has been the real guiding principle behind, and primary use of, all anti-terrorism laws.

        • If you read between the lines, the real reason was spelled out in the summary. These things can be used to detect narcotics manufacturing as well as bomb making. The real reason is the wish to escalate the war on drugs, which has been the real guiding principle behind, and primary use of, all anti-terrorism laws.

          Why would anyone care so much about drugs though? It just does not make any sense.

          • by geoskd (321194) on Sunday November 03, 2013 @09:19AM (#45317303)

            Why would anyone care so much about drugs though? It just does not make any sense.

            It makes a tremendous amount of sense from a political standpoint. Incumbents involved in conflicts tend to get re-elected more frequently, so it is in every incumbents interests to be involved in some way with an external conflict. The war on drugs is relatively safe from a political standpoint because pretty much nobody identifies with the drug dealers, and the cartels can be made out to be some foreign criminal gang, and thus attacking either of them bolsters the image of the incumbent being tough on crime, while alienating almost no voters. Its the real reason drugs are not legal in this country, and why it is taking so long for basic legalization of pot in most states. Incumbents are loathe to give up their cash cow.

    • But ... but then government money would go to the WRONG people!

    • Ah, so you subscribe to the Lee Iaccoca school of business.

    • by rasmusbr (2186518)

      Who said it would be expensive? Machines that replace humans tend to save money. A drug detector doesn't need to eat or feed its family. A drug detective tends to want to earn 50k+ a year. Out of all measures proposed by government to stop terrorism (oh, and drugs), this seems like one of the more cost effective.

      It would still make more sense to compensate bomb victims with money than by going to foreign countries and blowing up people there, which seems to be the current standard course of action.

    • by mrmeval (662166)

      And the chemicals that will set that off are uncontrolled so just saturate a town with it, suck off resources and funding and repeat until they have no funds to do any enforcement.

    • not to mention that publicizing the idea makes it fail, as your average terrorist is now going to avoid dumping into sewers.

  • And later (Score:5, Funny)

    by moteyalpha (1228680) on Saturday November 02, 2013 @06:26PM (#45314493) Homepage Journal
    Dear Sir, We were monitoring the sewer and it seems your daughter is pregnant. We checked the DNA and it is that kid you don't like. We only know you don't like him because the NSA shares information with us. On the side are ads for abortion clinics, diaper services, gun shops, and obstetricians provided by WalMart. BTW you need to check your cholesterol.
    • I suspect you're exaggerating the risk of intrusive surveillance dramatically here. Of course it's always good to keep an eye on possible future uses of such technology and any danger of scope creep. However, there's just a small difference between the kind of sensor network that can tell you someone within a few hundred metres of this city centre location is working with a surprising amount of fertilizer and the kind of sensor network that can do a full chemical breakdown complete with DNA analysis on all

      • Re:And later (Score:5, Interesting)

        by moteyalpha (1228680) on Saturday November 02, 2013 @07:22PM (#45314833) Homepage Journal
        I realized this could be done decades ago. I am surprised that it has taken this long to be implemented. I work in robotics and recently in molecular genetics. It is a complete source of DNA for every person. It is a wealth of "raw" information and since analysis is getting cheaper every day it could become a new data base that can be collected and sold. It is creepy and that is why it creeps.
        GATTACA. BTW, we checked your DNA and you have too many SNP's and will not be allowed to procreate as it would be a burden on the state. Also it would be the obvious creep of scope. Cold Cases with DNA and no match. It will happen.
    • Re:And later (Score:5, Interesting)

      by jamesh (87723) on Saturday November 02, 2013 @06:34PM (#45314531)

      Dear Sir, We were monitoring the sewer and it seems your daughter is pregnant. We checked the DNA and it is that kid you don't like. We only know you don't like him because the NSA shares information with us. On the side are ads for abortion clinics, diaper services, gun shops, and obstetricians provided by WalMart. BTW you need to check your cholesterol.

      That might be a bit of a stretch, but OTOH detecting traces of THC or other drugs like that might not be outside the scope of this sort of project, and may not correlate with the average persons idea of a free society.

  • by flyneye (84093) on Saturday November 02, 2013 @06:29PM (#45314509) Homepage

    I'll give you bomb ingredients; Thai food, Mexican food,Barbeque, habanero sauce and IPA. I'll melt your damn sensors and curl your nails back. Stay the hell outa' th' sewer. Figures this is a "governmental" bright idea....

  • Big brother (Score:5, Insightful)

    by giorgist (1208992) on Saturday November 02, 2013 @06:31PM (#45314523)
    Well with smart meters accurate enough to tell when you are watching TV and what, Now with these sensors knowing what you are flushing down the toilet How about some environment monitors so they know what we exhale ... Its getting pretty creepy
    • Well with smart meters accurate enough to tell when you are watching TV and what, Now with these sensors knowing what you are flushing down the toilet How about some environment monitors so they know what we exhale ... Its getting pretty creepy

      I wish they would put some of these technologies to better use and bust corporations that continually pollute our environment rather than erroneously try to catch bomb makers. There are a ridiculous number of common household compounds used for cleaning that would set these sensors off (some described in an informative post above). This is a positively stupid idea. Might look good on paper, but if you stop and think for a moment the number of false positives is going to be astronomical.

  • Just another way to line a crony's pockets in the name of fighting terrorism.

  • Very sorry we killed your child and your dog during our raid sir, false positives are a tragedy but we can't let the terrorists and drug dealers win can we? Next time don't flush that expired cough syrup and prescription drugs, call our chemical disposal unit for the proper forms first, and if you have anymore kids be sure to teach them to lay face down on the floor and pray when unknown people break in in the middle of the night instead of screaming and crying!

    • Re:Sorry (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Chas (5144) on Saturday November 02, 2013 @07:23PM (#45314841) Homepage Journal

      Sorry. The terrorists WON already.

      We're now LESS free than we were, and the fucking morons claiming to "run" the country (insert your country's name here), are no closer to eradicating or even MITIGATING terrorism.
      Oh yes. And they, and a bunch of their friends, are now MUCH richer.

  • by Areyoukiddingme (1289470) on Saturday November 02, 2013 @06:36PM (#45314547)

    What they say it will be used for: sniffing for bomb materials

    What it will be used for: sniffing for illegal drugs

    First they'll put a probe in each neighborhood. Then they'll put a probe in the sewer for each street. Then they'll put a probe in the individual drains from every house. Then when they detect cocaine, you'll get a ticket in the mail.

    You know, this brave new world is a lot less Brave New World than we thought it would be...

    • What they say it will be used for: sniffing for bomb materials

      What it will be used for: sniffing for illegal drugs

      First they'll put a probe in each neighborhood. Then they'll put a probe in the sewer for each street. Then they'll put a probe in the individual drains from every house. Then when they detect cocaine, you'll get a ticket in the mail.

      You know, this brave new world is a lot less Brave New World than we thought it would be...

      Seriously? Why is everybody getting worked up over this? I remember watching a documentary about US American narco cops less than a year ago and one of the things they showed was police officers cooperating with environmental inspectors systematically sampling sewer water to track down meth-labs. It's just a logical progression of what environmental agencies are already doing on a regular basis to monitor pollution and to track down businesses trying to cut costs by pouring toxic chemicals down the sewers.

      • by jamesh (87723)

        Seriously? Why is everybody getting worked up over this?

        I can't speak for anyone else but i'm just mostly trolling for mod points. Slashdotters can't mod up a "big brother is coming to get you" post fast enough.

    • by jamesh (87723)

      Then when they detect cocaine, you'll get a ticket in the mail.

      The mail? They are already in your sewers, they can simply deliver the ticket that way, and maybe probe you when you are on the can just for good measure. "Please remain still, citizen. You may feel a small amount of discomfort, but struggling will just make it worse. If you haven't done anything wrong then you have nothing to worry about".

    • by mpe (36238)
      First they'll put a probe in each neighborhood. Then they'll put a probe in the sewer for each street. Then they'll put a probe in the individual drains from every house. Then when they detect cocaine, you'll get a ticket in the mail.

      What's to stop someone else pouring something nasty down YOUR drain though?
  • by theNAM666 (179776) on Saturday November 02, 2013 @06:42PM (#45314585)

    This is just great! Pour a few bags of fertilizer down the drain by his house... next stop, my local IT competitor's shop...

    • So when your ex wants to go to the bathroom one last time before she leaves... kick her out immediately!

    • Don't forget to pour some fuel oil down the drain as a chaser.

      You know, technically, you haven't committed any crime when you do that, have you. You didn't actually make any explosives, but it seems like if these sensors even worked at all, they would alert to this combination.

      • by w_dragon (1802458)
        If you have committed a crime depends on where you are. Around here fuel oil is a hazardous waste and it is illegal to put it into the sewage system - it needs to be taken to a waste station.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    These bomb and drug makers will just use a bucket and dump it down the sewer across town. What a waste of time and money.
  • by pev (2186) on Saturday November 02, 2013 @06:53PM (#45314671) Homepage

    So, the bomb makers just conduct their business in a house in the countryside that uses a septic tank instead of connecting to a sewer system. That's a lot of money and effort and false confidence that can be circumnavigated with great ease. Now, if they'd done this without telling anyone then they might have had an edge... Idiots.

    • That's asymmetric warfare for you. We have a lot of money, so we have to spend a lot of money to come up with solutions those with little money can circumvent with little money.

      Think for a moment, we can't let yet another enemy just disappear because he can't afford to play pretend war with us anymore.

    • by Ardyvee (2447206)

      I was thinking very much this. You don't even need to use a septic tank: all you need is that it never reaches the sewer system. Just get it into some kind of barrel or tank, bury it if you so desire (at your house or somewhere else) and continue as planned. If it leaks or somebody manages to see it, it'll too late or they were already suspecting you were making a bomb and were actively looking at you.

    • So, the bomb makers just conduct their business in a house in the countryside that uses a septic tank instead of connecting to a sewer system. That's a lot of money and effort and false confidence that can be circumnavigated with great ease. Now, if they'd done this without telling anyone then they might have had an edge... Idiots.

      The only edge they have is near the point at the top of their pin heads.

  • by davydagger (2566757) on Saturday November 02, 2013 @06:56PM (#45314689)

    > Using remote sensors might be effective because the liquid- and gas byproducts of bomb production â" and manufacture of many drugs as well

    lets be frank about what this is really about

  • False positives. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by SuricouRaven (1897204) on Saturday November 02, 2013 @07:21PM (#45314827)

    Ammonium nitrate. Common fertilizer. Weapon of choice for terrorists, as it is easily available in large quantities and can be easily processed into a form suitable for use as an explosive. Whenever you read about a car bomb, it was probably this stuff.

    So every time you fertilize your garden and some rain falls, it'll set off the alarm.

    People undergoing radiotherapy also excrete high enough levels of radiation to pose some hazard to other people. So their toilets will be detected as dirty bomb factories.

    • People undergoing radiotherapy also excrete high enough levels of radiation to pose some hazard to other people. So their toilets will be detected as dirty bomb factories.

      False, even if in some case you can detect a high level of radiation from such patients, it never pose some hazard to anyone. You have to prove your statement. Second, the chemical detectors are not aimed at detecting radiation. Third, even if the would, it could be easy to discriminate the medical isotopes from those which could be involved in the fabrication of a dirty bomb. Fourth, no one would bother fabricating a dirty bomb while he can do a biological or chemical one much more easily.

      • 1. This columnist describes his wife undergoing radiotherepy. As a precaution, she is advised to avoid close proximity to other people. Not that the hazard is severe, it's just a precaution. http://www.theregister.co.uk/2012/08/31/something_for_the_weekend_electronic_skin/ [theregister.co.uk]

        2. Those ones aren't. But it's an obvious next step.

        3. Anyone who wants to make a dirty bomb is going to have to make the best of whatever isotopes they can get. Medical isotopes are one potential source. Hospitals have them, hospitals can

    • every time you fertilize your garden and some rain falls, it'll set off the alarm.

      Not true.

      The storm drains don't empty into the sewer drains in any modern city with sewerage treatment. Rain water doesn't need to be treated like sewerage and nobody needs sewerage tainted water overflowing the treatment plant every time there's a heavy storm.

      The sensors are a bad idea for many other reasons, but fertilizing your garden isn't one of them.

      • "in any modern city"

        But this is a retrofit thing. A lot of cities don't have split sewer and storm systems, because the sewers went in a century ago and is isn't practical to dig up half the city to replace them. London and Paris both have combined sewage and storm systems for that that reason. Paris solved the problem by installing massive underground cisterns to absorb the surge during a major storm.

  • This is idiotic, what bomb maker is going to dump anything down a drain the second they even suspect that a few areas are going to have these kinds of sensors installed. They'll simply dump it out in the countryside or bury it in the back yard. On top of that with all of the crap people dump down drains I have to imagine that false positives are going to be commonplace. And as others have mentioned while "bomb detection" is the claimed objective drugs/alcohol/pharmaceuticals are going to be the actual t

  • Can't we just find a way to pension people like this off, or give them jobs cleaning pay phones or something? It would be a much better use of public money.

  • Game this system for political game or other profit, particularly if their sewer systems are like a lot of those here in the United States - CSO or Combined Sewer Overflow, or further, storm drains and sewage go to the very same place.

    Where I live they just recently finished four miles of underground tunnels to store the CSO. So in order to track what's going in they'd have to put a sensor near each outflow from each home and building. But being the storm drains are pretty close - its all moot.

    But ju
  • by Waccoon (1186667) on Saturday November 02, 2013 @11:27PM (#45315831)

    The whole reason why we flush is to get rid of bombs.

  • For some time I've believed that as DNA analysis improves, becomes cheaper, and becomes more scalable, we will see governments locate missing people/wanted criminals with DNA collected from the sewer.

    For a targeted search, I envision "robot" crawlers with DNA sampling/classification systems being deployed where multiple sewer lines enter the treatment plant. When one of them finds a trace of the targeted individual's DNA, all the robots consolidate and crawl "upstream" from that point to the next set(s) of

    • Could you get much intact DNA from sewage? I have a hard time believing that with the witches brew of chemicals, low sample density & ravenous bacteria you would be able to profile even 1% of the population connected to a particular sewer system.

  • And fill them with carbon dioxide. That will solve two problems at once:

    1. Rats and other pests.
    2. Any potential intruders.

    Just use the exhaust from a local power plant or heating plant and flood that into the sewer system.

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