If you thought criminal investigations have gone to the dogs, you might be right—digital dogs. Forensic science has now perfected an advanced “crime-sniffing” technology that can detect, at the molecular level, deadly viruses, illegal drugs, and even bomb-making chemical compounds. These digital dogs however have such a keen sense of smell and data gathering capability that their application and use may inadvertently begin to infringe on our privacy.
Digital dog technology expanded on years of research focusing on the unique sensory capabilities of canines and their highly-sensitive olfactory receptors. For years, dogs played an important role in tracking and following the scent of escaped criminals. In recent years, dogs have been awarded military honors for bomb and IED detection within war-torn areas. Today, this highly sophisticated canine capability can be directed at cancer and virus detection within humans.
With an opportunity to expand this application into the criminal investigations sector, research into the development of an artificial canine receptor has now received funding through the Department of Homeland Security. The initiative tasked researchers to mirror a dog’s olfactory sensory ability to detect (sniff) various chemical compounds in an effort to identify individuals or locations associated with criminal enterprise or terrorism. The goal of law enforcement is to utilize the technology to preempt certain crimes before they are initiated. Law enforcement officials believe the technology could be deployed at check points or anywhere crowds may gather, and it may be possible to apprehend individuals who are tainted with targeted or suspicious chemical compounds, even from a distance.
The concept was the brainchild of professor Otto Gregory of the University of Rhode Island and his chemical engineering doctoral student, Peter Ricci. This broad-based platform would provide criminal forensic investigators a technology designed to intervene where human detection proved ineffective. Studies show that the technology is so precise that it is able to detect one part per quadrillion parts of targeted chemical compounds programmed into the system. Various uses and applications may extend far beyond mere weapons, drugs, and explosives and could be used to detect viruses emanating from non-symptomatic humans who may not realize they have become carriers. Previously, these same experiments were conducted with actual dogs which have olfactory sensory receptors equal to a million times the sensitivity to that of humans. Gregory’s and Ricci’s “dog sniffer” technology improves upon that sensory factor even beyond the capability of an actual canine.
Over this past year, events coordinators at Miami Heat Basketball games have been utilizing actual canines to sniff-out COVID-19 coming through the pores of people’s skin as they enter the arena. This new “dog-sniffer” technology, which may be designed as a wand, would prove less invasive and far more efficient than deploying an actual canine to an event. “Where dogs are detecting it [COVID-19] from the skin, our sensors would detect it from biomarkers in people’s breath,” says Ricci.
Today, law enforcement is taking a cue from the military through the deployment of this “sniffing” technology by loading it onto drones to be flown over various crowds, protests, or crime-concentrated urban areas. Authorities rationalize its application as another means of providing safety to schools, shopping areas, and congregate settings, but many privacy advocates are now questioning this involuntary invasion of privacy where personal health information and other health markers may be detected in people while they go about their daily routines.
Gregory defends the deployment of his new technology by advising, “The Department of Homeland Security has asked us to be flexible enough to anticipate and adapt to emerging threats that may come several years down the road.”
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